Wednesday 29 November 2017
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
Migration Policy and the Economy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the Government’s migration policy on the economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to see the Minister in her place. We had a crossing of paths in Gloucestershire when she stood as our police and crime commissioner candidate in 2012. She was not successful on that occasion, but Gloucestershire’s loss is very much the House’s and the Home Office’s gain. It is also a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) here to speak for the Opposition. I will be happy to take interventions from hon. Members and listen to their contributions.
To summarise what I plan to say, my proposition is that migration can be good for Britain if it makes all of us richer, not just the people who have come here to work. It can benefit the public finances and help with the budget deficit, but only if the people coming have sufficient skills and earn a sufficiently high salary. After we have left the European Union, we should treat people who come to Britain from the European Union in the same way as people from elsewhere in the world. Anything else would be indefensible. The system should be based on people’s skills and what they can contribute to the country, not where they are from. That will also make a tremendous difference to our efforts to strike trade deals around the world. That is the nub of my argument; I will now set it out in more detail.
I will talk primarily about migrants who come here to work or to look for work; I will not cover people who come here seeking refugee status, for family reunion or as students, although I will touch briefly on students towards the close of my remarks. I want to be clear that migrants who come to Britain with the right skills are to be welcomed: they come here, they do valuable jobs and they can benefit our economy as well as themselves. However, we should also consider our primary responsibility to the people who elect us to this place and ensure that our migration system benefits not only the people who come here, but the people who are here already.
When we debate the performance of the economy, the measure that we most commonly look at is the growth of GDP—the size of the economy—which has been positive since the Conservatives came to power soon after the economic crash, but we should also look closely at GDP per head, which is the size of the economy adjusted for the fact that there are more people in Britain. Perhaps that is something the Minister can pass on to colleagues in the Treasury. Of course not all population growth is to do with migration, but according to the Migration Observatory, just over half the population increase between 1992 and 2015 was due to migration. That is quite a significant amount. The rest was to do with things such as the ageing population. GDP growth per head in the time that we have been in office is about 0.75% per year lower than GDP growth, and over a considerable period that makes a significant difference to how well off we are. We need to ensure that the people coming here contribute to the extent that they are not just making themselves better off, but increasing GDP per head. It is important to make British citizens better off as well.
I want to flag up how migration relates to the conversation we are having about productivity performance, which has been somewhat disappointing since the financial crash. The Chancellor spent a fair bit of time on that in last week’s Budget, which we voted on last night. I do not want to overstate my case, because the academic research shows that there is no single cause of what some of the academic literature calls the “productivity puzzle”. A lot of bright, smart people—far brighter and smarter than me—are not entirely certain what is at the root of it, but I posit that at least one aspect of productivity is to do with migration.
If we say to businesses that there is effectively an unlimited supply of all different sorts of labour that can come from the European Union and that can be hired relatively cheaply, it does not make much sense for those employers to invest significant capital sums in their business for the latest technology and labour-saving innovations that could help their existing workforce to become and stay more productive. If we were to say to employees that after an appropriate adjustment period that unlimited supply of labour from across the European Union will no longer be available, employers would look at investing capital into their businesses and at different and smarter ways to do things that would improve the productivity of their existing workforce. That would make Britain more competitive and deliver the only sustainable way to drive up wages in the public and private sectors: increasing productivity.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke).
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Is not the nub of his case that importing cheap labour from overseas disincentivises businesses from investing not just in kit, but in improving the skills of their employees and our workforce?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. This is a big issue in his constituency of Dover, one of the gateway parts of our country.
It is perfectly right for us to look at what people can pay; we have rules in Britain about paying the national living wage. However, research done by the Bank of England in its staff working paper, “The impact of immigration on occupational wages: evidence from Britain”, concludes that although there is not an impact at the higher end of the skills spectrum,
“in the semi/unskilled services sector…a 10 percentage point rise in the proportion of immigrants is associated with a 2 percent reduction in pay.”
I do not want to overstate it, but there is certainly some evidence that at the bottom end of the labour market, there is an impact on pay. It is also a question of the availability of labour and saying to employers that they need to think about smarter ways of working, not just assume that they can access an unlimited supply of labour.
My right hon. Friend is making a very good speech. On the point of productivity, which he was discussing when my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and I simultaneously attempted to intervene on him, he will no doubt be as concerned as I am that the productivity figures we have just seen show a heavy concentration of higher productivity in London and the south-east. That suggests to me that the area that has had the highest level of migration and has the highest migration-derived population actually does have high productivity. We have to think about that.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The literature shows that many factors contribute to productivity. To digress for the moment on the regional aspect, which is not too far from the main topic, the strongest action the Government should take is to continue to invest in infrastructure across the United Kingdom, particularly transport infrastructure. One of the reasons for the focus of our former colleague George Osborne, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the northern powerhouse was that if we improved the transport infrastructure to join up the northern cities of England so that people could commute much more quickly between them, we would effectively create a group of cities that together would be globally competitive and would make a real difference to the productivity not just of their region, but of the United Kingdom. Ensuring that we invest in all parts of the United Kingdom and not just in London and the south-east is a valuable point.
To go back to the right hon. Gentleman’s earlier point, is he aware that he has mis-stated the results of the research on the effect of immigration on wages? In fact, the research to which he refers shows a fall of only 1% in the wages of low-skilled workers as a result of immigration, according to the immigration expert Jonathan Portes. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that is the true result of the research that he misquoted?
No, and I take slight exception to being misquoted by the hon. and learned Lady. Some people have misquoted the research, but I have been careful to have a copy of the document in front of me and quote exactly from its conclusion without overstating it. I am familiar with Jonathan Portes’ research, but that is different research.
Jonathan Portes is an expert in economic immigration. His commentary on the document states that the actual results suggest a fall of only 1% in the wages of low-skilled workers due to immigration. That is Jonathan Portes’ expert conclusion.
I am pleased that the hon. and learned Lady has just confirmed that that is Jonathan Portes’ opinion about the research.
His expert opinion.
I was quoting from the document itself; I carefully explained what it was and read out its precise words. What the hon. and learned Lady has done is read out someone’s opinion on it. Jonathan Portes is indeed an economist—in fact, I was debating and disagreeing with him on this very subject on the “Today” programme this morning. Someone may call himself an expert and be an economist, but I suspect everyone here knows that when a number of economists get together, the room ends up with more opinions than economists in it.
No, I will not give way again yet. I will make some progress.
Much of this debate is about the assumptions behind economic models. Changing the assumptions can often lead to different conclusions. We often hold different views about these things, so we have to make our case with arguments and let our ultimate bosses—the voters —take a view on who they believe. I am content to let them reach that conclusion.
My second point is about migrants’ contribution to the public finances. When we came into office, there was a budget deficit of approximately 10% of GDP, which was completely unsustainable. We have reduced that budget deficit by three quarters, but despite the considerable progress we have made, we still have a fiscal challenge to solve. It is important that we look at the contribution made by those coming here.
The Migration Advisory Committee is an independent, expert committee, so I hope the hon. and learned Lady will listen carefully to what it has to say. It did a very detailed piece of work for the Government in 2011, looking at the minimum income requirement for sponsorship under the family migration route. One of its conclusions from the 2011-12 figures was that a household had to earn £25,700 to make a neutral contribution to the public finances—in other words, for the tax it paid to be sufficient to offset its share of public services such as education, health and defence.
That suggests that the migrant workers in Britain who do not earn significant salaries but have access to benefits such as our welfare system are not making a net contribution to public finances. I am not suggesting that they are not working; they are, but they are earning a lower salary and are therefore entitled to things like in-work tax credits and—as the system changes—universal credit. Lower-paid migrant workers are coming to Britain, working, earning money and paying taxes, but the taxes they pay are not sufficient to contribute properly to public finances. In effect, British citizens and those already working here are subsidising some of those migrant workers.
To come back to our friend Jonathan Portes, on the radio this morning he made the point that if we take all EU migrants together, they do make a positive contribution. I have not checked the figures since I debated him, but I think he is right about that. However, he is mushing together all EU migrants of all skill levels. My argument is that we should absolutely continue to have people coming here who are sufficiently highly skilled, are earning income and are making a positive contribution to the public finances, but we should not allow everyone to come here.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he accept what a number of employers have told me: that people who may have entered the UK to fill relatively low-skilled and low-paid jobs in shortage occupations develop and progress their skills in the workplace and make a greater contribution over time to the UK economy?
That may be true, but if the hon. Lady will allow me, I will say more later about what business thinks and about the opportunities that will arise if we make the change I propose. Then, if she does not think I have covered her point, of course she should feel free to intervene.
My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. Will he address ensuring that we can end free movement when we leave the European Union and get the right balance with work permits?
Yes, I will come to that.
It is worth saying that Britain’s unemployment rate of 4.3% is relatively low, compared with 7.5% in the EU as a whole and 8.9% in the euro area. Some countries in Europe have unemployment rates of more than 20%. Our record is very positive, and businesses have created 3 million new jobs since this Government have been in power. I am always careful to say that businesses have created the jobs, because it does not happen automatically. Although we can help to create the conditions, it is businessmen and businesswomen who actually take the risks and start the businesses. In this country there are still 1.4 million unemployed people, as well as a number of people not in the labour market, to whom we should give opportunities. I think that addresses my hon. Friend’s point.
When we leave the EU in March 2019, we will leave the single market and the customs union, and freedom of movement will end. The Government were absolutely right to make a generous offer to EU nationals already in Britain who came here before we triggered article 50. We were not able to make that offer unilaterally, because we had to ensure that we protected the 1 million British citizens elsewhere in the EU, since the British Government’s first responsibility is to defend the interests of British citizens, wherever they may be in the world. In the Chamber today, we will debate an Opposition day motion from the Scottish National party that we should unilaterally make an offer to EU nationals, casting aside the essential interests of British citizens elsewhere in the world.
I see that that point has engaged SNP Members, but we will have plenty of time to debate it later. I mention it now because the Government have published a very clear document for EU nationals called “Rights of EU Citizens in the UK”. Every hon. Member who speaks to EU nationals already in Britain should ensure that they see that document, so they know that the Government have made it very clear that they are not just welcome, but positively encouraged to stay here after we have left the EU. If they have been here for five years, they can get settled status; if not, they can stay for that period and then get it. We want them to stay. My point is about what we do after we have left the EU when new EU nationals want to come and work in Britain. It is worth distinguishing those categories so that there is no opportunity for mischief-making or for anyone to pretend that we do not want existing EU nationals to stay under the Government’s very generous offer.
There has been some debate in the media today about our negotiations, but from the document produced by Michel Barnier’s team, which sets out the British Government’s offer on EU citizens and the demands of the EU27, we can see that we are not a million miles away. There are some issues left that still have to be negotiated on, but on the vast majority there is complete agreement, including residence, exportable benefits and access to the health service. We are within touching distance of reaching a deal on that basis, which will set the mind of many people—EU nationals and British citizens—at rest.
I am also very keen that students keep coming to the United Kingdom to attend our fantastic universities. It is worth mentioning that over the last year the number of international students coming to Britain has increased. Students make very little net impact on the immigration figures because usually they complete their course and then leave; those who want to stay are welcome to do so if they get a graduate-level job, but then they are counted as a worker and not as a student. We have a fantastic offer for international students and I am very pleased that the Home Secretary has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to examine the contribution that international students make to our economy. I look forward to seeing the results of that research.
My right hon. Friend will know that the University of Gloucestershire has a campus in Cheltenham. Does it not always bear emphasising that our fantastic universities are effectively one of the great exporters in the British economy, because they bring in so much foreign currency? They are one of the jewels in our crown and we should nurture them at every opportunity.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who is not quite, but almost, my Gloucestershire neighbour, for that intervention. He is absolutely right that we have some fantastic educational institutions. In my constituency, Hartpury College is a provider of both further and higher education. It has international students from around the world, particularly on some of its sport courses, and is a global leader. Those are the sorts of educational opportunities that we should be extending; I want to see that continue, and there is no reason why it should not be able to.
I am not sure where the right hon. Gentleman got his figures from, but the ones that I am looking at are from the Evening Standard. In fact, his former right hon. Friend —the ex-Member for Tatton and former Chancellor—is very worried about the fact that the migration targets include students. He said on 27 August in the Evening Standard, “International student numbers are down by 27,000, because we look like an unwelcoming nation”. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman has any comment on that.
Well, the figures I looked at suggest that is not true. There has been a small reduction in the number of students coming from the European Union, but that has been more than offset by the number of students coming from outside the European Union. Also, the whole issue of whether students are counted in the migration figures or not is a complete red herring. There is no limit on the number of international students who come to Britain. The only things that students have to be able to do is speak English to an appropriate level, be properly qualified for the course they are taking and be able to pay for that course. There is no limit on the number of students coming here.
Of course, what the Government have done over the last seven years is make sure that students are indeed genuine students, and are compliant with our immigration regime. When we came to power, there were tens of thousands of students who were not really students; they were pretending to be students, but they were actually here working. We have removed sponsor licences from, I think, 916 educational institutions, which were bringing in students but were not complying with our immigration rules. That did no one any favours.
We now have an almost entirely compliant system, in which everybody coming here as a student is a genuine student, does their course and, at the end of it, either goes back to their country of origin or, if they have a graduate-level job opportunity, stays and contributes to our country. They are very welcome to do so. If smart, talented students want to come to Britain and study, I welcome them; if they want to stay here afterwards and take a graduate-level job, I welcome them; and if they want to stay here and start up a business, creating wealth and job opportunities for others, I welcome them. We have seen more people doing those things, not fewer, and I hope that trend continues.
We should base our offer to EU nationals post-Brexit on skills. One reason for that is that there are 1.4 million unemployed people in our country, but there are also some people who do not get the opportunities that they ought to get from employers, because employers are sometimes a little too ready to ask people to come from elsewhere in the European Union to work here.
I am thinking about some of the people who need employers to think about them a little more. There are around a million people in the UK on out-of-work benefits who have some kind of mental health problem but are perfectly capable of working, and who would like to work; some, but certainly not all, of them are included in the 1.4 million people who are unemployed. They may need employers to make reasonable adjustments for them, or they may need some support from the excellent Access to Work system that the Department for Work and Pensions has, but they deserve an opportunity to get into the labour market. We should say to employers, “Before you bring someone in from outside the United Kingdom, you should think a little harder about the people we already have here, and ask yourself if you are doing enough to engage them in the labour market.”
I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group on learning disability, but there are also around 600,000 people with learning disabilities in the UK who Mencap estimates are perfectly capable of working, and who would love nothing more than to enter the workforce. Again, they should be given the opportunity to do so, and we should just challenge employers a little to look at some of the people we have here. I accept they may not be completely job-ready, but I will come back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) made about encouraging employers to invest in the skills of employees, so that they get the opportunities to participate. Such encouragement would help enormously.
It is also important that we have an immigration system that commands public support. I was looking at some very interesting work that an organisation called British Future has done. It looked at some of the options that will be in front of us in its report, “Time to get it right: Finding consensus on Britain’s future immigration policy”, which was published in September. The report considered whether we should effectively continue to have free movement, whether we should do what I suggest and have a system like the one we have for migration outside the EU, or whether we should have some other system.
Interestingly, British Future did some polling. I always think that we should not make our policies fit polling, but when we have come to the conclusion that we think is right for other reasons, it is quite helpful and heartening, when one looks at what the public’s views are, to find that actually the public are broadly supportive. When I look at the tables about that polling, I see, first of all, that there is a very considerable consensus, and that people think we should not prioritise business and the economy over immigration, or prioritise immigration over the economy, but that we should have a compromise that balances immigration and the economy. That position commanded very significant support from people, whether they were Conservative or Labour supporters, leave or remain, and men or women, which is encouraging.
The report also considers two options for the Government. One is controlling low-skilled immigration through a cap while allowing skilled migrants to come to the UK, as before. Again, that approach has overwhelming support from a whole range of people, whether they were leave or remain, Labour or Conservative, or whatever. The other option is to consider whether we should have different targets for different types of immigration, and that also commands overwhelming support.
Interestingly, particularly for Scottish National party colleagues who are here, the report also put those questions to voters in Scotland and in London. In Scotland, 62% of voters agreed that we should control low-skilled immigration through a cap while allowing skilled migrants to come to the UK as before, which was far more than the proportion of people who wanted to keep free movement or—at the other extreme—wanted to stop EU migration all together. In London, there was broadly the same figure, with 59% of people wanting to control low-skilled immigration but being very relaxed about higher-skilled migrants, and both those numbers were broadly consistent with those for the UK as a whole.
That is, of course, an opinion poll. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the majority of voters in Scotland have voted for political parties that want to keep free movement, and indeed that the Scottish Parliament has recently voted, on a cross-party basis, to support keeping free movement for Scotland and a differential immigration policy for Scotland?
That may well be true, but of course in the referendum on Scottish independence, when Scotland was asked whether it wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, it clearly said that it did, and in the EU referendum the United Kingdom, which Scotland is part of, decided that it wanted to leave the European Union, and the single market and free movement of people. The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right that I am citing an opinion poll; it is an opinion poll that is not only consistent with the result of the EU referendum, but shows very considerable support for the proposition that I am setting out, so I think that my proposition would command widespread consensus.
My right hon. Friend is very kind to give way to me a second time. There is one key point I want to raise, because I am not sure whether he will come to it. Were we to bring in such visas or such a system, would he expect that we, our children or whoever would then be subject to similar visas, should we want to visit France or Germany, or work or study in those countries?
My hon. Friend makes some interesting points. He mushed together several things, including visiting and working. I cannot see any reason why, once we have left the European Union, we would require people coming from the EU for visits—people coming on holiday or for travel—to have visas or vice versa. For example, we do not require visas from citizens of the United States of America coming to Britain on holiday or for visits. It is perfectly reasonable to have rules about people coming to work in Britain, and it would not be unreasonable for European Union countries to have similar rules. We could hardly complain if such rules were reciprocal, but to require visas for visits would not be sensible.
The final point I want to make is about the views of business. It is certainly true—I read the paper that the CBI produced ahead of the debate—that businesses, particularly larger businesses, are basically saying, “We want to carry on importing labour as we do already”, but I think we should push back a little. It is not surprising that businesses want to carry on doing things as they are, with unlimited supplies of inexpensive labour, but we should remind businesses that they should not only do what is in their economic interest, but what is in the economic interest of our country. We should challenge businesses to think about those who are already here and ensure they invest in them and improve their skills. We should also challenge businesses a little about whether they are investing enough in their capital, in the technology available to their business and in their productivity before we automatically say, “Let us just import people from overseas.”
The Home Secretary has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to look at the businesses that depend on EU nationals in their workforce, and that work will be helpful. It will enable us to identify those businesses that are using that labour, particularly at the unskilled end of the spectrum, and it will enable the Government to work with those businesses, particularly over the two-year transition period or implementation period that we have said there will be once we have left the European Union, during which people from the EU will still be able to come here. In that period we will be able to work with business to ensure that they can make the changes they need to make ahead of not having access to the unskilled labour that I talk about in my proposition.
The right hon. Gentleman has been making very broad assumptions about who owns and runs businesses in this country. A great number of my constituents who have been in touch with me on this issue have come from other countries to Scotland to set up and establish businesses, but have found that Home Office rules and processes mean that they are then at risk. They employ people from Glasgow, and their businesses are being put at risk by the Home Office, in particular through delays to entrepreneur visas.
The hon. Lady makes a good point, which is that we allow and welcome people to come here to set up businesses with appropriate rules about the investment of capital and so on. If she has any specific cases, she should raise those with either the Minister or my colleague the Immigration Minister. I have done that job, and I used to deal with specific cases. The hon. Lady is right: officials, fabulous though they are, are not perfect and mistakes do get made. Part of what we do in this House is fix those mistakes where they happen. We enable Ministers to ensure that systems work more smoothly, and that work is very welcome. She should continue to raise her concerns, as I know she does.
In conclusion, migration can have a positive effect on the economy, but we should look at the growth of our economy per head of population, and not just at GDP growth overall. We have to ensure that the existing population is better off. People coming to the country should earn enough to make a positive contribution to the public finances. That will support the public perception of migration and make people more welcoming. Finally, a migration system based on skills and not the country of origin will be essential for a global Britain that goes out looking for trade deals. It will be very difficult to explain to countries outside the European Union why a citizen of their country with the exact same level of skills finds it more difficult to come to work in Britain than someone from the European Union. Arguably, that would be a discriminatory system that would be difficult to defend once we are no longer a member of the European Union. For all those reasons, I commend my proposition to the House and look forward to the contributions from other Members.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I note that five Back Benchers wish to speak. Although I cannot enforce a formal time limit, if they can keep their remarks to around five minutes each, the Front Benchers can start at half-past 10.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I will pick up exactly where the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) left off in talking about the attitudes of business, and I do so in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration, which recently produced a report on the needs of business for access to labour post-Brexit. I have a somewhat shop-soiled copy here that I am happy to share with the Minister.
In the report, we particularly focused on the views and needs of small and medium-sized enterprises. We felt that their voice had not been heard very much in the debate so far. I put on record my thanks to the Migrants Rights Network, which helped with the research, and Ernst and Young, which provided funding, as well as to all the businesses and organisations that provided evidence. We had evidence from 19 organisations and we held oral evidence sessions with businesses and representatives in London and Manchester covering the retail, hospitality, manufacturing and social care sectors, all of which employ a high proportion of EU and European economic area nationals.
The first thing we were told was that the characterisation of jobs as highly skilled or low skilled and the potential over-restriction of inward migration of so-called low-skilled workers was unhelpful. Many jobs that would not be classed as highly skilled under the 2011 definition that currently applies to non-EU and non-EEA nationals require significant skills and experience. It was inferred that that definition might in future apply to EU and EEA nationals. We know from Office for National Statistics data that non-UK nationals are more likely to be in jobs for which they are overqualified than UK nationals. Businesses saw that as potentially having a positive impact. The issue of skills was therefore complex.
Secondly, businesses said that the description, whether implicit or explicit, of some jobs as low-skilled caused an image problem in some sectors, making recruitment in the domestic workforce more difficult, as it made the jobs unattractive. Thirdly, employers found that migrant workers were often more flexible than UK workers. They described them as highly motivated and hard-working. More to the point, migrant workers were more willing and able to move around the country or work more flexible hours, because often they did not have the same family commitments as UK workers. Indeed, ONS stats show that on average EU2 and EU8 nationals work more hours than UK nationals and so supply important and much needed capacity. Finally, the businesses we spoke to were clear that EU free movement has been an important safety valve for employers in accessing the labour they need. That was especially true for SME employers and sectors where recruitment is more difficult.
Given all those factors, the employers who gave evidence to our inquiry were concerned that immigration policy post-Brexit should not inhibit their access to the labour they need. That concern has been echoed by businesses across all sectors in my constituency, from food processing to paper-making to construction. Flexibility is especially important. In some cases, the need for labour is seasonal, as the Minister knows. Some businesses need to be able to move workers from site to site, depending on where the work arises. I mentioned this in an intervention on the right hon. Gentleman, but employers also spoke about the need for flexibility to enable lower skilled workers to progress and develop higher skills as they progressively acquire experience and knowledge. That flexibility is important in terms of the productivity and progress of the business.
In our inquiry, we asked employers about their preferred model for management of migration post-Brexit. They cautioned against introducing a points-based system similar to the system that applies to non-EU and non-EEA nationals, expressing concern about the cost to employers, the complexity of the system and the bureaucracy. They were worried that such a system would not only limit the number of workers who could come to the UK, but inhibit the flexibility business needed. They were particularly anxious to ensure that any system did not impose unnecessary administrative burdens on employers. They suggested that work needed to be done to identify sectors that were likely to face acute labour shortages in certain skillsets when we can no longer freely access EU labour, and that the shortage occupation list should be expanded if necessary to reflect the new shortages.
The hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who has not been able to stay for this part of the debate, rightly spoke about the need to upskill the domestic workforce. The businesses we spoke to favoured more emphasis on training and upskilling of domestic workers and potential workers, although they also said they thought the existing apprenticeship and training schemes were too inflexible, especially for small and medium-sized businesses. They suggested that as part of the post-EU migration strategy, the Government need to look at developing apprenticeship schemes that more effectively address the labour needs of small businesses. They also asked for Government to provide support for positive efforts in sectors that are considered, often wrongly, to be unskilled and to build a public relations campaign to promote the attractions of working in those sectors. They highlighted in particular the hospitality, food, retail and social care sectors.
I hope the report will be helpful to the Minister in formulating post-Brexit migration policy. The APPG has already had the opportunity to meet the Migration Advisory Committee to discuss our findings. I am concerned that the MAC report commissioned by the Home Secretary will not be with us until later next year. I anticipate that the Government intend to introduce their immigration Bill rather sooner than that, and so will not have the benefit of the MAC research in preparing it. I hope the Minister will say how engagement with business, especially SMEs, will take place in anticipation of the introduction of the legislation to ensure their needs are fully reflected in it.
Finally, we should also be aware that restricting immigration will create other additional and new pressures. We will increasingly have an ageing settled population and a proportionately smaller working-age population; that will lead both to increased demand for labour to care for the ageing population, and to pressures on the supply of labour. As the recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research shows, that will potentially have a negative impact on tax revenues. We must not forget the benefits of immigration. As the APPG’s report makes clear, the flexibility, innovation, commitment and ready availability of migrant labour has benefited business and our economy, and it must continue to do so post-Brexit.
I am thrice blessed—to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Hosie; to follow the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who made some excellent points; and for the first time to attend a debate to which my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) will respond as Minister. We congratulate her as the first member of our intake in 2015 to have a red box. I am sure she will do the Home Office proud.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on securing the debate. I mean that sincerely, because it is extraordinary how immigration featured so prominently in the referendum campaign but has been barely debated in Parliament since, so I very much welcome this debate. I did not know what the essence of his argument would be, but I have to say I fundamentally disagree with one point that is extremely important and we need to reflect upon it: the point about discrimination and the two different systems that I think will eventually become far more important than perhaps many people realise.
My right hon. Friend is right to say we have a discriminatory system. In fact, the official Leave campaign vowed to end that system. Under our system a person can enter the country to work as an unskilled migrant only from the EU; it is illegal to do so from outside the EU. Tier 3, a form of non-EU migration, is closed and has been for many years. In a written answer, Jacqui Smith said it was because we get sufficient unskilled labour from the EU. The key word is “unskilled”. Some 75% of people who come from the EU to work in this country would not be able to enter under the non-EU high-skilled migrant route. That tells us that the vast majority of EU migrants are doing jobs whereby they would not even be able to get into the country were we to reform the system as suggested. The problem is that the jobs are not menial and unskilled.
I will give the example of a firm in my constituency. Challs, based in Hadleigh, is a chemical manufacturer that exports around the world. It is ambitious, but its owner has said there is a real problem: he has key members of staff who are EEA nationals who are classed as unskilled under the non-EU system, but they are not unskilled and his company depends on them and he would not be able to recruit replacements; it is simply not feasible. We have a significant issue here. I campaigned to remain, but I think the referendum result was driven—quite legitimately—by a concern about unsustainable levels of migration. To honour the referendum result, it is necessary not only to bring about control of immigration, but to reduce the numbers to a sustainable level in the long term.
We have to remember that in the last quarter non-EU net migration was 50,000 higher than EU net migration. If we have a single non-discriminatory system—the same system for EU and non-EU—it is mathematically impossible that non-EU migration will do anything other than rise, perhaps significantly. On the streets of Clacton and other places where the people voted leave in overwhelming numbers, if we had said that a direct result of leaving the EU will be a significant rise in non-EU migration, they would have been shocked and appalled. That is a democratic point that we have to consider. I am a strong supporter of immigration, but it has to be controlled. Consider the people from eastern Europe and the impact they have had: they had a century of brutalisation, but we set them free in 1989; they came into the single market that Mrs Thatcher created and they have worked their socks off in this country.
How do our recycling centres keep going? Almost entirely from east European labour. This is the key point. Would we fill jobs? It is not about what skills are available. It is simply whether we have people available to do those jobs, and people with the will to do those jobs. I agree strongly with my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston that we have to train our own workforce to fill those positions, but it will take time. I remember representatives of the hospitality sector coming to speak to the Work and Pensions Committee when I was on it before the election. They said they supported a greater proportion of workers coming from the UK, but there would need to be a transition.
When I stay overnight in the Park Plaza, I do not see a single British member of staff. They are all from Europe and they work their socks off. They might be unskilled and low paid, but we and our economy depend on them. We have to move away from that dependency, which has become damaging. That is the reality of the position we are in now, so we must be very cautious before equalising the system. In my view, for what it is worth, were we to maintain some form of membership of the EEA and have some form of emergency brake on European migration, such as Liechtenstein has through the European Free Trade Association, and were we maintain the division we have where we are strict on non-EU numbers, we might get a better system, because instead of the Migration Advisory Committee determining the number of people coming into the country, it would be a different system altogether called the free market, which I support. We should be very cautious before changing that.
It is wonderful to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on securing this debate. I very much welcome the opportunity to speak about the positive contribution that migration makes to the economy, particularly in Scotland. As you might expect from an SNP MP, Mr Hosie, I will focus my remarks today on this Government’s obsession with an unrealistic and counterproductive one-size-fits-all net migration target, which I believe is deeply flawed in economic terms.
It is important to set the scene and provide a bit of context for this debate. Scotland’s estimated population was 5.4 million in mid-2016—the highest on record and an increase of 6.7% since 2001. Net migration has contributed to a population increase every year for the past 16 years. In contrast, the rate of natural change has remained low for the past 50 years, and over the past two years has been negative. That contrasts with the situation in the UK, where natural change contributes significantly more to population increase. Migration has therefore been critical to growing Scotland’s population, and any reduction in migration has the potential to seriously damage Scotland’s demographic resilience.
Looking ahead, Scotland’s population is projected to increase by 5% by 2041, driven solely by migration. Scotland has a markedly different demographic profile from the rest of the UK, which is why I believe immigration policy should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, a topic I will return to later. If current trends continue, net inward migration is projected to be the sole contributor to Scotland’s population growth. EU migrants make an enormous contribution to our economy in Scotland, so I am especially fearful about the consequences of restricting free movement in a post-Brexit Britain.
I was recently out in Glasgow enjoying a dinner and was struck that from the moment I entered the hotel to the moment I left, every single member of staff I came across was a European national. That echoes the point made by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) only a few moments ago. The reality is that our tourism sector is heavily and increasingly dependent on workers from other EU countries. According to the annual population survey, in 2016 there were approximately 17,000 EU citizens working in tourism in Scotland, representing 9.4% of all those working in the sector overall, with that share rising to 15.3% in the accommodation sector specifically. That compares to an EU citizens’ employment share of 5% in the Scottish economy as a whole.
We know that the UK Government’s position on EU citizens in the Brexit process is already having a detrimental impact on flows of inward migration. For example, the number of nurses from the European Union registering to work in the UK has fallen by 96% since the Brexit vote last year. Figures collated by the Nursing and Midwifery Council show that the number of new applicants from the EU fell from 1,304 in July last year to just 46 in April. If that does not cause us concern, I do not know what will.
I was trying not to intervene because I did speak for a fair length of time, but just to be clear: there are more EU nationals working in the NHS this year than last year. There were 61,891 EU nationals working in the NHS in June 2017, compared with 58,698 in June 2016. The idea that after the referendum decision all the EU nationals working in the NHS went away is simply not true.
Those figures will presumably include doctors; the figures that I quoted are from the Nursing and Midwifery Council. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to conflate the figures, that is absolutely fine, but that is where my figures are from.
Restrictions on migration will also have an impact on Scotland’s soft fruits sector—a vital part of our rural economy. That impact will be of interest to you, Mr Hosie, and to the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who I presume will speak about it as well. It is vital that our sectors retain the ability to recruit staff from across the EU. We know that 15,000 non-UK seasonal workers are employed in our soft fruit and vegetable sector, so that should be a cause for concern as we approach leaving the EU.
Before summing up, I want to focus on calls—not from the Scottish National party, but from civic Scotland—for immigration powers to be devolved. We know that the one-size-fits-all approach to which the Government are wedded will not work for the future sustainability of our economy.
There have been a number of suggestions about having a separate immigration policy for Scotland and England, but there is of course no border there. Countries like Australia, for example, have separate states with separate immigration policies. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that creates issues, with leaks of migrants across the states?
Given the mess that the United Kingdom Government are currently in regarding the situation in Ireland, I am not sure that a Member from the governing party lecturing us on borders necessarily suggests the right frame of mind at the moment.
The calls for immigration to be devolved do not necessarily come from the SNP, although we support them; they come from civic Scotland. Let me quote Grahame Smith, head of the Scottish Trade Union Congress, who I believe was right to say:
“We believe migration has an entirely positive contribution to make to Scotland’s economy, demography and culture, particularly in a properly regulated labour market in which workers’ rights are protected.”
He went on to say:
“UK immigration policy is increasingly encroaching on the devolved powers of the Scottish parliament, including how it runs its public services and who works within it.”
Grahame Smith is right: immigration powers must be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. We in the SNP believe that migration is about more than economics. It is about individuals and their families having the right to choose to build their lives in Scotland. It is about the contribution that they make to our culture, communities and society, as neighbours, friends, family members, and work colleagues. That contribution will be lost if people from the EU are no longer able to come here.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) for introducing such an important debate on the future of migration after Brexit.
Since being elected, I have heard concerns specifically from soft fruit farmers across my constituency about how we will continue to provide for seasonal agricultural labour after we depart from the European Union. In Angus, we produce over 30% of Scotland’s soft fruit, and I am incredibly proud of my many constituents who collectively deliver such a significant contribution to our vital food and drink sector. As I set out in my submission to the Migration Advisory Committee last month, Angus requires an excess of 4,000 seasonal workers every year to make that vital contribution to our economy. I will continue to urge the UK Government to provide clarity on how they will field those much-needed staff going forward.
Labour accounts for approximately 50% of a soft fruit farm’s costs. If there are further declines in the numbers returning to the United Kingdom, overtime payments will be essential to cover the hours of work required to complete the production process. I am deeply concerned that those higher wage overheads will put pressure on the price for our consumers. If the cost of our fruit increases, I am anxious about not only competitiveness with outside markets, but the possible implications for the ability of consumers to afford our produce.
Many colleagues on both sides of the House will have similar issues in their constituencies; I hope that they, too, take this opportunity to work constructively with the Brexit process, rather than heckle from the sidelines. I know that behind the scenes there is a power of work is going on in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office to ensure a viable solution after Brexit, but I hope that the Minister can give some reassurance to my constituents that they will be told how they can continue to grow their great British businesses as we depart the EU, sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to see the two rapid-risers of 2015 and 2017 on the Front Benches. I want to touch on three separate issues, the last of which has already been extensively discussed: curry, students and fruit-picking. The metric I want to use is how much those sectors contribute to our economy, through productivity and other means.
Let us start with curry. I am a product of that industry as my father had two Indian restaurants. It was the late Robin Cook who said that chicken tikka masala is now the national dish, not fish and chips. Chinese and Indian restaurants combined contribute £5.5 billion to our economy—employing 250,000 people—but since the Government started meddling with the tier 2 visas, we hear that two Indian restaurants a week are closing in this country. That is on the eve of small business Saturday.
In all three areas, there is a theme: a dogmatic target—tens of thousands, just for the sake of it—can lead to skills shortages and gaps in our labour force that need to be addressed. If we are wedded to that ridiculous target, we have no room for manoeuvre. I think the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) were making the same point: inflexibility is hamstringing our economy.
We now have several world-class, Michelin-starred Indian and Chinese restaurants. We could introduce a system of temporary visas, like the seasonal agricultural workers scheme for fruit-picking, for bringing people in and out to do those kinds of job. I wonder whether the Minister might be able to do a review—they are always popular—on how to alleviate those shortages. The curry colleges that Eric Pickles, no longer a Member of the House, suggested have been a complete flop. The idea was to train curry chefs here, but that is just not happening.
To add insult to injury, the Leave campaign used the hashtag #saveourcurry. I think it was the former Secretary of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who said that if we stop EU migration, the curry chefs will be welcomed in with open arms. I remember querying that in Home Office questions, during my brief time at the Dispatch Box. I was told, “No—the target remains the tens of thousands.” The curry industry was hoodwinked, which was really unhelpful, and now feels very cheated.
It is time to get rid of the arbitrary target altogether, but students should certainly be taken out of migration figures. The general public at large do not see them as immigrants, because they are here temporarily; I think Home Office figures show that 97% of them go back after their studies. They contribute £10 billion per year to our economy and this is a huge export industry. There are many advantages to having students, such as the contribution they make to our soft power, and to having international staffers come to our universities, including the University of West London in my constituency.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry; I would have done so earlier, but I have only one minute left to conclude.
Hon. Members have already mentioned fruit-picking. We need a stable and predictable flow of people to stop our fruit, hops and vegetables rotting away in the fields. The National Farmers Union—not the Socialist Workers party—has said that there is an urgent labour crisis in that sector. We had that workers’ scheme from 1948 to 2013. The agriculture industry is worth £3 billion to the UK, and it relies on a seasonal workforce. As the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) said, indigenous people do not want to do that work—that is why it is not happening. I would urge the Minister to reintroduce that kind of scheme. There are academic studies from the University of Sussex, but again we see dogma trumping reason, with a counterproductive result. Attracting Brits is difficult.
The right hon. Member for Forest of Dean mentioned settled status. Members of the 3 million campaign—my constituent Wiktor Moszczynski is very vocal in that—do not like what they are being offered. They think it is a lesser status and a secondary tier. They have lost their rights to family reunification, appeal rights, protection from deportation—the list goes on. It is seen as not really satisfactory.
We need some flexibility. The fixed target is unmet, unachievable and unrealistic. George Osborne says:
“Advanced nations that have shut the door to newcomers now find themselves ageing fast and shrinking as a presence in global affairs—whereas those with open societies maintain a big role in shaping the world we live in.”
I did not used to agree with him when he was in here, but I agree a lot more with him now he is out at the Evening Standard. I will end there!
It is a great pleasure to welcome you to the chair and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. It is also a pleasure to welcome the Minister to her place. We may disagree about politics, but I have always found her unerringly professional and courteous in her approach.
We have had a very interesting debate today, but these debates should be evidence-based. I want to start by taking the opportunity to correct for the record what was said by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on Sir Stephen Nickell’s research. I quote from an article published in The Independent on 25 January 2017 following an interview with Sir Stephen Nickell, where he said that his work had been misrepresented by those who wished to slash immigration:
“The author of an influential piece of economic research frequently heralded by leading Brexiteers as evidence that immigration from the European Union undermines native British wages has stressed that the negative impact is ‘infinitesimally small’ and that his findings had been widely misrepresented.”
Sir Stephen’s research, originally published in December 2015, is frequently cited by those who are
“asked to provide evidence that immigration has had a negative effect on...living standards”
in the United Kingdom, yet
“the 10 per cent claim was based on a significant misunderstanding of the research’s findings. As...Jonathan Portes has pointed out, the actual results suggested only a 1 per cent fall in the wages of low-skilled workers due to immigration—and this impact was spread over a period of eight years.”
That is 1% spread over eight years.
Sir Stephen said that his research had been “grossly misrepresented”, that the wage impact is “very small” and that low-skilled workers
“lose out by an infinitesimally small amount.”
He said that he was cross that he had not been able to get cross in public about the
“public bowdlerisation of his research findings”
because he was a senior official at the Office for Budget Responsibility until recently, and added that
“his co-author, Ms Saleheen, who works at the Bank of England, has also been unable to speak out publicly to correct misleading statements.”
I am pleased to quote from the horse’s mouth—the author of the research—that the research has been misquoted, and from Jonathan Portes, who is not a self-appointed expert, but a professor of economics and a widely recognised expert on immigration.
I was very clear in what I said. I agree with the hon. and learned Lady—I do understand that some people have misrepresented what Professor Nickell said. I read from the conclusion of the report, which said that the 10% increase in the proportion of labour led to a 2% reduction in wages. I did not overstate it. I do understand that some people have exaggerated that, and I was very careful not to do so, because I take what economists say seriously.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says and I am happy to have had the opportunity to clarify the matter.
What I really want to speak about is the evidence of the impact of immigration on the Scottish economy. It is increasingly clear that UK immigration policy does not and cannot address the demographic and social needs of Scotland. If that continues to be the case, the Scottish economy will be adversely affected. The contribution of citizens from the European Economic Area to Scotland has recently been addressed in detail, with substantial evidential analysis, by the Scottish Government, in their response to the Migration Advisory Committee’s call for evidence on the role of EEA workers in the UK labour market. I commend that to the Minister. It shows that EU migration in Scotland is essential to ensure sustainable population growth, which is the single biggest driver of our economic growth.
All the projected increases in Scotland’s population over the next 10 years are projected to come from migration, in contrast with the UK as a whole, where only 54% of population increase is expected to come from overseas migration. That is why Scotland needs a different immigration policy and why the Scottish Parliament has voted to support the Scottish Government’s policy of a differential immigration policy, although it is a matter of regret that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats did not support that. I am very pleased to say that the Labour party and the Greens did.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said, the Scottish Government also have the support of the Scottish Trades Union Congress. In particular, Unison has spoken out strongly about the need for a differential immigration policy for Scotland. I am also pleased to say that the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the Scottish Institute of Directors have said that Scotland should look closely at a differential immigration policy.
To address the point about borders raised by the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), Australia and Canada are two examples of countries that operate differential immigration systems. As the hon. Lady ought to know, because it is her Government’s policy, immigration is not controlled so much at borders these days but in the workplace, when people go to look for a job or a benefit, or go to rent a flat. In Scotland, we now have a separate national insurance code, so it would be easy for Scotland to have a differential immigration system from England without any need for a hard border. Indeed, we are repeatedly told by the UK Government that the Republic of Ireland can have a separate immigration policy from the north of Ireland without the need for a hard border.
I am constrained by time, but I want to look briefly at the macroeconomic modelling that has been done by the Scottish Government, because it shows the contribution of EU migrants to the Scottish economy: on average, each additional EU citizen working in Scotland contributes a further £34,400 per head in gross domestic product per year. As there are approximately 130,000 EU citizens working in Scotland, that means they are contributing approximately £4.42 billion per year to the Scottish economy. It is also estimated that, fiscally, they contribute £10,400 per head in Government revenue. So, the evidence shows that EU and EEA migrants are making a huge contribution to the Scottish economy.
With regard to migration from outside the EU, we do not think a one-size-fits-all approach applies either. We would like the UK Government to abolish their net migration target, which, let’s face it, they have missed for the past seven or eight years, so there is not really much point in it anyway. We would like them to abolish the immigration skills charge. We would like a more flexible and responsive approach to the existing mechanism of the shortage occupation list for Scotland, and most importantly—this has cross-party support from every single political party in Scotland—we want the post-study work visa introduced in Scotland. I would really like the Minister to tell us why the post-study work visa has not been reintroduced in Scotland, despite the support of her own party in Scotland for that to happen. We are often told how tremendously influential the Scottish Conservatives are now at Westminster. If that is so, let us see the post-study work visa come back, because the Scottish National party has been calling for that for a long time.
Immigration policy must be evidence-based. When we quote evidence, we have to look at it carefully to make sure that we understand it properly. If we are in any doubt about the conclusions, we are perhaps best to go back to the author of the research, as I have done with Sir Stephen Nickell.
As regards Scotland, the evidence shows that the Scottish economy benefits from immigration. Business in Scotland accepts that, the trade unions in Scotland accept it and most of the political parties accept it. It is time for immigration policy to be devolved to Scotland so that the Scottish Parliament can ensure that migration works to the benefit of the Scottish economy.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on securing this debate, and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I welcome the Minister to her position, and I look forward to our exchanges. I was an immigrant, but I am an adopted Mancunian and I am here representing Manchester, Gorton.
The Government’s migration policy is not driven by economics. Since 2010, the focus has been on meeting the net migration target, whatever the cost—and there certainly has been a cost. One of the first groups they went after was students. International students contribute £25 billion to our economy. They are also an easy target for reducing migration numbers. Students are the largest group in the net migration figures, and the numbers for that group are easier to control than for other forms of migration. Attempts to reduce international student numbers have worked: 72 British universities have lost more than 43,000 international students over the past five years.
With the greatest respect, the Government have not gone after students at all. There are more international students here. What the Government have done is to tackle colleges that were pretending to educate people who were actually working. We have taken away their sponsor licences. We actually have more genuine students studying here than we did—I welcome that—but it is not right that people come here pretending to be students when they are really working. We have got rid of that abuse.
I have no problem with stopping abuse, but if the right hon. Gentleman will hear some of my further arguments, what I am trying to say may become clearer.
What we have seen in Glasgow is not a drop in the number of international students, but a change in the demographics. Whereas in the past we had students from India, the States, Australia and New Zealand, now the majority of our students come from China. They come and study, and are welcome—we love having them—but they leave immediately after finishing their course. We want them to stay and help improve the economy, but we need the post-study work visa in place for that to happen.
I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution.
Let me make progress on my point. Those students would have supported about 24,000 jobs and brought £920 million-worth of positive economic impact to those universities and their local economies—50% of the jobs would have been in the local economies and 50% in the universities. International students pay higher fees and subsidise UK higher education spending. Students not only benefit local economies but have a lasting impact on our links with other countries. They increase our soft power abroad: 55 world leaders from 51 countries have studied in the UK.
Research is a major reason why the UK is attractive to investors. International students go on to fuel innovation and research. I am from Manchester, and graphene—a wonder material—was discovered at Manchester University. The two professors who discovered it were migrants. They won Nobel prizes, and we will continue benefiting economically from their discoveries. International students have also been shown to benefit the UK students who study alongside them.
Despite all those benefits, the Government made it more difficult for students to get visas, which discourages them from staying in the UK. The Government have chosen their misguided net migration targets over the benefits students bring to local economies. Their approach to EU nationals is already making skills and labour shortages worse. The NHS, nursing and social care are being hit. Those sectors face a crisis. The Government have used EU citizens as bargaining chips in negotiating with the EU. EU citizens are still waiting for clarity about their rights 18 months after the EU referendum. The number of EU nurses registering to work in the UK dropped by 96% in the year since the Brexit vote, and staff shortages in social care are causing homes across the country to close.
This issue does not just affect the public sector. The Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce have all said that we will need more migrant workers, skilled and unskilled, in the years ahead. Despite the rhetoric that immigration policy will attract the brightest and best, we are losing out on skilled workers. The Government’s distinction between skilled and unskilled workers makes no sense. Apparently, to be a skilled worker, a person must earn at least £35,000 a year, but people in a number of skilled occupations earn less than that, including non-medical nurses, many teachers, language teachers and engineers. Outside London, many people earn less than £35,000. A tech genius in Manchester is likely to earn less than she would in London, but that does not mean she is any less skilled.
The Government asked the Migration Advisory Committee to investigate immigration policy and our economy, but it seems that the Government will publish the immigration Bill before the Committee publishes its advice. What could be a clearer sign that immigration policy is not guided by economics? The Government are already planning to ignore the advice they requested.
When the Government draft the immigration Bill, will they ask businesses what they need, and will they seek input from unions? Will they examine the impact that their own austerity policies have had on access to the NHS, schools, housing and public services? Will they take account of the fact that the Migration Advisory Committee missed the nursing shortage altogether, and that it was the Secretary of State for Health who had to lift the visa restriction for nurses?
Labour has promised fair and reasonable management of migration. We will always put economic prosperity first. We will scrap the meaningless and unworkable migration target, which has never once been met in seven years. The reality is that the target for non-EU migration alone, which the Government are solely in charge of, has never once been met. Labour would not include international students in the immigration numbers. We will work with employers, unions and others to establish our real needs and meet them. We want fairness between EU and non-EU migrants. That means levelling up decent treatment and establishing fair rules. We will crack down on all exploitative employers who deny rights and breach national minimum wage rules. Migrants make a great contribution to this country, to our social and cultural life, and to our economy. Tory rules are an obstacle to maximising those benefits.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to appear opposite the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). I welcome him to his place. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) for this important, topical and genuinely interesting debate. It is so important that we have this debate now. As we move towards leaving the EU, we begin to formulate ideas and plans for our future, not just in the European area but in the world as a whole. As a former Immigration Minister, my right hon. Friend’s expertise and experience precede him. He spoke with clear authority and eloquence—particularly about the issue of skills and productivity. I found his submissions about GDP per head very interesting. I hope those sorts of ideas will come to the fore as we debate the future of immigration in this country.
My right hon. Friend and a number of other hon. Members rightly mentioned students. The Government absolutely believe that our world-class educational establishments are a major success story for the United Kingdom. There is no limit on the number of international students who can visit. International students are included in the net migration figures because the independent Office for National Statistics follows the policy of Australia, the United States and other countries, which also include those figures in the net migration statistics. It is worth bearing in mind that when students leave the United Kingdom, they are taken out of the net migration figures.
May I press the Minister on the point about the post-study work visa made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry)? The Conservative education spokesperson in the Scottish Parliament, Liz Smith MSP, made comments about, and was hoping to see action on, this issue. Will the Minister give us an update on the post-study work visa before she moves on from education?
The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted me; I was going to deal with that at the end, but I will deal with it now. We have no plans to reintroduce the post-study work visa. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) was quite right to talk about evidence, and I thank her for her kind comments, but evidence from previous schemes showed that large numbers of people were undertaking low-skilled work. We now have the much more targeted tier 2 scheme, so that when graduates leave UK universities we know that they go into highly skilled jobs, using the skills that they have developed at university. Indeed, the evidence goes even further: we found that in October 2010, three in five users of the post-study work visa were in unskilled work. A 2014 analysis of migrants who had switched from the tier 1 post-study work category to the tier 1 entrepreneurial category found that the majority had no declared economic activity or were working in breach of their conditions of stay. That is why we are focusing on skills and productivity— precisely because we hope that students who come to our universities will deliver those skills and will be able to contribute.
I am conscious of time, so I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate and I reassure them that the Government are clear that carefully controlled economic migration benefits our economy. It is vital for our country’s prosperity that we select and attract the right mix of skills to the UK, ensuring that we continue to support wealth creation, employment and productivity. We know that migration supports United Kingdom growth by allowing employers greater choice and enhancing the labour market’s ability to respond quickly to capacity constraints. I listened carefully to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) on the concerns of local employers. I hope that the independent Migration Advisory Committee report will draw on those views, so that in September 2018 we will have an evidenced-based report on what our migration system should look like.
Migrants do not just bring the skills needed but enhance our society and contribute to British life. However, we must strike a balance. We need to attract migrant labour, which boosts our economy, while ensuring that migration does not reach unmanageable levels to the detriment of domestic labour, skills and local communities. Our commitment to reducing net migration to sustainable levels must be balanced by our determination to ensure that UK businesses have the labour force that they need. Our immigration system must strike that balance.
I was most interested to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), particularly as she is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration. She mentioned skills; in setting in our immigration policy we have followed the advice of the independent Migration Advisory Committee, particularly when it comes to drawing up the shortage occupation list. Again, we will look at the evidence of the committee’s report in September 2018.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West both mentioned Scotland having its own immigration system. I make the simple point that the United Kingdom is united: there is free movement between England Wales and England and Scotland. The whole point of having a united immigration policy is to keep our kingdom united. I know that that does not play with the views of the—
Will the Minister give way?
Will the hon. and learned Lady forgive me if I do not, as I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean wants to speak for two minutes at the end? I just wanted to make the point that we have freedom of movement in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) for raising the issue of agricultural workers. That is being kept under review, and the Immigration Minister is visiting many members of the agricultural sector to discuss those concerns. We note in passing that the latest labour market statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that more EU nationals are coming to this country to work than ever before. That is why we have not implemented a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, but that is kept under review and we will listen carefully to the National Farmers Union and others.
The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) mentioned curry, students and fruit picking. We have already dealt with fruit picking, but I am delighted that she raised the subject of curry. Curry chefs are not subject to the freedom of movement rules that EU chefs enjoy. We do not want to discriminate between non-EU and EU migrants. There will be a system for all our international partners. I make no promises as to how that will impact curry chefs in particular, but the point is that we will be free of that current difference between EU and non-EU citizens because we are leaving the European Union.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West spoke about the post-study work visa issue; I have already answered that point by way of an intervention. We continue to review our immigration arrangements regularly, and we are committed to ensuring that the system continues to serve the national interest.
Very quickly, on the point about the immigration Bill and rules, which was raised by a number of hon. Members, the MAC report is due to report in September 2018. The immigration Bill will be drafted before then; it will be about dealing with the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill repealing freedom of movement. The detail of EU migration policy that will apply to EU nationals will be set out in immigration rules. The report is a very important part of creating those rules. I hope that the Bill will come next year; it will set out the framework within which those rules will work.
Mr Hosie, I want to give my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean time to make his closing remarks. It has been a pleasure to listen to this debate and to the informative contributions; they have made for a very interesting morning. Allow me to finish with this thought: we all know that successful businesses are essential to the success of our economy. It is through successful businesses that we have employment, pay packets and prosperity, which is precisely why the Government established its immigration policy, and measures such as its modern industrial strategy and flexible working arrangements, through universal credit for example. I hope that that will have an impact on bringing people into the job market. All those policies draw together to try to ensure that the United Kingdom remains a great place to do business. We welcome the contribution that migrants have made historically, and will make in future.
I am grateful for the opportunity to sum up the debate. To come back to what my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) said, part of the reason for this debate was to kick off the discussion. I am grateful for the views that colleagues have given. I am very conscious that all the debate about migration so far has been about the existing EU nationals in Britain and our British citizens overseas. That is very important, but it has rather obscured the question of what we will do after we leave the European Union. That is exactly why I called this debate. Clearly, it will not be the last debate, but the first in a series. It has brought out some of the issues and has enabled us to have discussion. What has come through very clearly—this is supported by the polling that I quoted from British Future—is that the public want us to balance the needs of the economy and the requirement to control migration. They do not want us to prioritise one issue over the other; they want to balance them, and getting that balance right is important.
I have set out a proposition, and the Minister can listen to that. The Migration Advisory Committee is doing work to inform the debate, and colleagues on both sides of the House and from all parts of the United Kingdom will bring valuable insight. That was my intention. We have had an excellent debate, with contributions from many parts of the United Kingdom and from both Front Benches, and I am grateful for those. I am sure that this will not be the last time that we debate this important subject, and it was a great pleasure to do so under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the Government’s migration policy on the economy.
Arctic Ambassador: Appointment
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the appointment of an Arctic ambassador.
It is an immense pleasure—indeed, an honour—to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I welcome the Minister. He indicated that this might be his first Westminster Hall debate in his present post, so I congratulate him on that.
I am delighted to introduce this debate on an issue that is close to my heart. Scotland is the Arctic’s closest neighbour, and the potential for collaboration and mutual learning between us is significant. That is why I have championed closer political engagement with the Arctic countries for some time. As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on polar regions, I want to take this opportunity to credit the APPG for its work in this regard.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the APPG on polar regions, which I have the great honour of chairing. It covers both polar regions—the Antarctic and the Arctic—so will he explain why this debate is about an ambassador only to the Arctic? Surely, if we were to have an ambassador or a special envoy, they should be for both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
The chairman of the APPG makes a valid point. However, as I will reveal, the proximity of the Arctic to Scotland makes Arctic issues much more relevant to our Government in Edinburgh and to our interests. I recognise, however, that the Antarctic plays a significant role overall and has similar issues, especially with regard to climate change and the environment, as the hon. Gentleman alludes to.
I thank Members who supported my recent early-day motion calling for the UK Government to appoint an Arctic ambassador. The reasons for my pursuit of this matter are manifold. Climate change is one of the greatest threats we face. As we know, its impact is felt most keenly in the Arctic north, where the melting of sea ice is accelerating at an alarming rate. In summer 2016, we saw the second lowest minimum ice extent on record in the Arctic ocean. The melt season has been lengthening, too. For example, the duration of ice-free conditions between the East Siberian sea and the western Beaufort sea increased by nearly three months between 1979 and 2012.
We must not underestimate the impact of what is happening in the High North and its inevitable effects on the rest of the world. Geographically, Scotland is the Arctic’s closest non-Arctic neighbour; the northernmost part of Scotland is closer to the Arctic than to London. I was delighted to be able to attend the Arctic Circle forum last week in Edinburgh, which was co-hosted by the Scottish Government. The forum served as a platform to spell out the plethora of ways in which Scotland can work with our Arctic partners for mutual benefit. Our geographical similarities and our shared challenges in areas such as the environment, living in remote communities, fisheries, planning and tourism were all brought to the fore. We also share many cultural and historical ties. For example, the twinning arrangement between my home town, Dunfermline, and Trondheim in Norway was the first in Europe. Our links go back a long way.
I will focus on the following areas of mutual interest between us and our Arctic neighbours, although this list is far from exhaustive: energy, transport, tourism, design and innovation, and defence. Energy is an area in which Scots have much to offer. The development of renewable energy in Scotland is forging ahead, and the capacity of renewables is set to increase. The world’s first ever floating wind farm was recently launched in Scotland, demonstrating our innovative approach to renewables on a global stage. At the Arctic Circle forum last week, we heard from Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre, who recounted Orkney’s renewables success story. Those islands have been producing more than 100% of their energy from renewables since 2013, and one household in 10 generates its own power.
Will my hon. Friend join me in acknowledging the fantastic contribution from Heriot-Watt University in my constituency to the development of renewable technology in the Orkney Islands?
Exactly; I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention. I will mention later the collaboration that we seek with all academic institutions. All the universities in Scotland were represented at the conference last week.
Given that the majority of policy areas related to the Arctic and the High North, and to the boundaries with the United Kingdom, are predominantly devolved to our Parliament in Holyrood, does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be more joint work and collaboration, and that the United Kingdom Government need to recognise the expertise in Holyrood and in the Scottish Government?
My hon. Friend makes a really valid point. During the independence referendum, Scotland was asked to lead the UK, not leave the UK. That kind of argument makes it important that Scotland’s position and expertise, and the valuable contribution we can make to Arctic issues, are brought to the fore.
Orkney also has the highest uptake of electric cars in the UK. There are clearly lessons to be learned across borders in a region with some of the greatest potential for renewable energy in the world.
Although we are making huge leaps in harnessing wind and tidal power in Scotland, we still mainly use fossil fuels to heat our homes and businesses. Many other, more niche renewable energy sources, such as geothermal, can be exploited. Geothermal energy is already being used to heat homes in parts of Glasgow, which begs the question, how can that be expanded to other areas? That takes me to Iceland, which is a world leader in geothermal power. Where better than our near neighbours to seek guidance on further developing that form of energy in Scotland?
As sea ice coverage in the Arctic reduces, opportunities might open up for new global trade shipping routes, and those could be supported by Scottish ports. The Northern Isles, the Western Isles, the Moray firth and my home port of Rosyth are some of the locations identified as potential stop-offs for such shipping. To prepare ourselves to ensure that we have the capacity to exploit those opportunities, we must consider what investment is needed in new port infrastructure. The Scottish Government are already investing in land-based shipping infrastructure; national planning framework 3 considers opportunities for new and expanded ports at Scapa Flow, Stornoway, Shetland and the Moray firth. The hub port of Finnafjord in Iceland has undergone a transformation in recent years to enable it to take full advantage of new shipping routes opening up across the region, so we can look there for inspiration.
We also have great potential to attract the cruise industry to the north. Scotland is well placed to embrace the economic opportunities presented by that expanding global market; it already attracts 45% of passenger day calls across the UK. At the Arctic Circle forum last week, we heard from Domagoj Baresic, a polar research and policy initiative fellow at University College London, who believes that Scotland could become a hub for the cruise liner industry. Let us not allow that golden opportunity to pass us by.
Besides attracting cruise liners to Scotland’s coast, there are plentiful opportunities for smaller-scale blue growth through marine and coastal tourism. At the Arctic Circle forum, Giancarlo Fedeli spoke about the success of his Cool Route project, a sailing route with more than 300 stops along the coasts of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Faroe Islands and Norway. That cleverly mapped-out route has the benefit of sustaining small coastal enterprises, often in remote communities, and helping them to extend their market reach. Cool Route has been ranked the No. 1 most adventurous cruising route in the world.
To give another example, North Coast 500 in the Scottish highlands successfully attracts tourism to remote areas. However, that project has taught us a valuable lesson: maintaining the integrity of our natural resources is part of the challenge of sustainable tourism. Iceland has that particularly in mind, given the rising popularity of its stunning Blue Lagoon as a tourist hotspot. Like Iceland, Scotland is home to some of the world’s most beautiful scenery and natural wonders, which attract millions of visitors to our shores every year. We must ensure that those valued resources are protected so that they can continue to be enjoyed by Scots and tourists alike for generations to come.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. I, too, am a Scot, and of course Scotland has a great deal to offer both the north and the south and elsewhere. I am puzzled, however, by his logic as to why Scotland having nice scenery should somehow or other lead to the conclusion that there should be an Arctic ambassador—which, after all, is what the debate is about.
I think it fits perfectly. There is a need for an Arctic ambassador—I will cover other areas in my speech. It is crucial that we make these links and have these friendships and collaborative projects across the whole of the Arctic. I know the hon. Gentleman has a wide range of interests, so I ask him to open his mind to the possibilities if we were to have an Arctic ambassador fighting for the UK and for Scotland over a wider range of issues.
We must ensure that all our resources are protected so that they can continue to be enjoyed by Scots and visitors alike. That is why the Scottish tourism agency signed a memorandum of understanding with Iceland’s tourism board last year. There is room for wider collaboration across the Arctic region on marine and coastal tourism. It is in our stewardship and sometimes our care for sensitive areas that Scotland can influence others.
An area of a mutual interest between the UK and the Arctic that does not spring immediately to mind is social policy. That said, I was hugely impressed by the Arctic conference and the innovative ways in which some speakers identified collaborative approaches towards things such as health, housing and planning. I was blown away by the cutting-edge approach taken by Lucy Fraser of Albyn Housing Society and Matt Stevenson of Carbon Dynamic towards health and housing in the context of Scotland’s ageing population. They have been working together on a project to design high-tech, low-energy adaptable housing units complete with state-of-the-art wellness sensors that can monitor a resident’s health and potentially predict changes—for example, falls—before they happen. Already, they are collaborating with northern universities on artificial intelligence used in the oil industry to help to develop their design. Their vision of Scotland as a global leader in predictive health is truly awe-inspiring. Again, to answer the point made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), this is about working in collaboration with other Arctic states, not narrowing our vision just to environmental issues.
Another pioneering initiative showcased at the Arctic Circle conference was that of Lateral North, a Glasgow-based design agency run by two creative young people who specialise in collaboration aimed at redefining Scotland’s relationship with the Arctic north and our Nordic neighbours. It uses virtual and augmented reality technology to map out ideas across areas such as town planning, tourism and shipping. A recent project saw it working with the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, engaging with indigenous communities to tackle societal challenges through urban planning, architecture and design. It sees Alaska and Scotland—the relationship between them—as the two gateways to the Arctic and the north. This is about how we can capitalise on that unique approach; it is a really inspirational project.
I appreciate that some areas I have mentioned are devolved either partly or in full. The Scottish Government deal with the devolved issues, but the major reserved area for the UK Government in terms of the Arctic is defence. The retreat of sea ice and the Arctic opens up commercial opportunities, but also increases the risk of military conflict in the region. We have seen recent submarine activity in Scottish waters, which is reaching levels beyond even what we experienced during the cold war, with Russia increasing its military footprint in the region. Members will also be aware that NATO has recently announced the formation of a new command to protect sea lines of communication between North America and Europe. That presents the UK with a unique opportunity to make representations to our NATO allies to base the new maritime command in Scotland. I call on the Minister to address that.
The Scottish Government recognise the geopolitical importance of the new north and have taken what steps they can to formalise our willingness and eagerness to work with Arctic nations. In 2014, the Scottish Government and the European Policies Research Centre hosted an international conference on regional co-operation in the Arctic. In 2016, the First Minister made a keynote speech at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik and, as I have mentioned several times, we hosted the Arctic Circle forum in Edinburgh a few weeks ago. As well as issuing a Nordic-Baltic policy statement, Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for external affairs, announced at the closing session of the conference that the Scottish Government would seek to develop a new Arctic strategy.
I warmly welcome the moves Scotland is making towards closer collaboration with our northern neighbours, given the range of devolved issues at stake. However, foreign affairs remains reserved to the UK Government. It is therefore vital that those sentiments are mirrored here in Westminster to ensure we have a consistent approach over all Arctic issues. By appointing an Arctic ambassador, the UK Government could signal their intent to work more closely with the Arctic countries on areas of mutual interest. That would also provide greater focus on British-Arctic affairs, allow for greater scrutiny and co-ordination of policy development in this area, and provide a platform for initiating trade missions to the region and work on energy projects. All that is even more important in the face of a hard Brexit, which could damage our economic links with many of our neighbours to the south. That is why now, more than ever, we should be encouraging the UK to look north.
For me, the key message of all this is one of collaboration. By working together, sharing our experiences and learning from one another, we can achieve great things. The many similarities that we in Scotland have with the countries of the Arctic make Scotland well placed to engage a multiple-level approach, but we need the UK Government to support and complement that engagement.
The appointment of an Arctic ambassador is not a novel idea: France, Japan, Poland and Singapore all have ambassadors responsible for Arctic affairs. All eight Arctic states also have Arctic ambassadors, special Arctic envoys or special representatives. The UK is clearly lagging behind in that respect. I suggest we follow the example given by the House of Lords Arctic Committee, which in 2015 recommended that the UK appoint an Arctic ambassador. I urge the Government now, at this critical time for our future relations with other nations, to take heed and give serious consideration to the appointment of an Arctic ambassador, even if that means allowing Scotland to take the lead in the UK, or for the UK, on the issue.
I thank the Minister in advance for his response, which I am sure will be well considered, and I would welcome further opportunities to discuss this matter with him in greater detail. Mr Hosie, I hope you have a wonderful day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) for securing the debate. The United Kingdom has a long history of involvement in the Arctic. As Minister for the polar regions, I welcome this opportunity to set out the Government’s approach to the Arctic and the steps we are taking to ensure that the United Kingdom remains active and influential there. I will also respond to the specific question of whether we should appoint an Arctic ambassador, but first I will set out the context in which our Arctic policy is based and the extent of our work on the Arctic.
The Arctic is changing rapidly. The effects of climate change are perhaps more visible there than anywhere else on the planet. Temperatures there are rising twice as fast as at lower latitudes, and we are already seeing the dramatic impact of that across the northern hemisphere in a growing number of extreme weather incidents. Within the region itself, declining levels of sea ice are attracting greater economic activity. There are opportunities for the UK, but equally, we must take our obligations seriously to ensure that only responsible development takes place in the Arctic.
Our Arctic policy is set in that context of a rapidly changing climate, which means that the co-operative approach we have always taken is now all the more important. The UK has a prominent voice in all international organisations with a role in the governance of the region. We are rightly seen by the Arctic states as a reliable and pragmatic neighbour. That means working with all the countries that have a stake in the Arctic—the main eight are labelled as the Arctic states—and we do that principally through the Arctic Council, at which we have held observer status since its inception in 1996. We enjoy excellent economic ties with Arctic states, which are enhanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) in his role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the Nordic region.
A co-operative approach is the right basis for ensuring that we can continue our long record of involvement in the Arctic, particularly as more nations declare their Arctic interests. It underpins our ability to conduct pioneering scientific research and to make the most of any economic opportunities that may arise, while taking due account of our environmental responsibilities. The UK has consistently been at the forefront of international regulatory developments that aim significantly to reduce the risk of Arctic pollution. We maintained strong involvement in finalising the environmental aspects of the polar shipping code and the ongoing discussions regarding the impact of black carbon emissions on the Arctic.
A central strand of our policy is to continue to support the Arctic research of our world-renowned scientists. Only three other countries—the US, Russia and Canada—produce more Arctic science papers than the UK. The Government are supporting pioneering Arctic research in a number of ways: first, through increased diplomacy and exchanges, including recent visits to Arctic states by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s chief scientific adviser, Robin Grimes; secondly, through the strengthened Arctic science office of the Natural Environment Research Council, which is giving more support to UK Arctic science; and thirdly, through our network of science and innovation officers in our embassies in Arctic countries, who are increasing their engagement in the Arctic Council’s working groups and have helped to promote the UK’s scientific excellence in Arctic science.
As the Arctic itself is ever changing, so too must our policy adapt and change. I am therefore pleased to announce that we will renew our Arctic policy framework early next year. We intend that to be an evolution, not a revolution, and we will reaffirm our commitment to partnership and international collaboration in the Arctic. Our vision remains one of a safe and secure Arctic that is well governed in partnership with indigenous peoples and in line with international law. The new framework will remain a cross-government document and will take account of the views of the devolved Administrations. I saw the Scottish Government’s recent announcement that they intend to develop their own Arctic strategy. I trust it will be in line with the UK’s framework and focused on their areas of competence.
As I hope everyone agrees, the UK can be proud of the positive role we are playing in the Arctic. None the less, having carefully considered the arguments set out today, I do not believe that appointing an Arctic ambassador, as some countries have done, is the right approach for the UK. Given our wide diversity of interests and established engagement across the Arctic states and within the Arctic Council, we do not think that it would add value. As Minister for the polar regions, I am already supported by a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official who oversees the development and implementation of the UK’s Arctic policy framework, chairs the cross-Government Arctic network and ensures the UK has appropriate representation at the Arctic Council and other key international Arctic events.
I am not convinced that the appointment of an Arctic ambassador would add significant value to existing structures and roles or justify the additional costs involved. We believe that the existing structure of Government, working properly at official level, does the job. I hope everyone agrees that the UK has been a prominent voice in Arctic affairs for many years. The Government are determined to maintain that level of interest and influence. The arrival of new interested parties, such as Asian nations, challenges us all to ensure our voice is heard just as prominently. We will continue to make the most of new opportunities for co-operation and to encourage our scientists, businesses and non-governmental groups to continue to pursue their interests in the Arctic.
Climate change means that international co-operation will be more important than ever. We want to ensure that the Arctic remains a place of peace and stability, and we will continue to work in partnership with all of those who have interests in the Arctic region.
Question put and agreed to.
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the provision of legal aid.
Thank you, Mr Robertson, for calling me to move the motion in this critical debate on legal aid provision in the United Kingdom. As ever, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship.
When people lack the money or knowledge to enforce their rights, those rights are worth nothing more than the paper they are written on. It is unacceptable that, in 2017, justice is fast regressing to a system that is not served to all, but instead belongs to those with the deepest pockets. Failings in the legal aid system are taking away people’s ability to defend their rights in practice, which is creating a system where a person’s income or economic status is a key determinant of whose rights matter when they are most needed.
That increasingly worrying situation is the result of a conscious political choice to restrict access. Just as the Labour party was founded more than a century ago to give working people representation in Parliament, legal aid was introduced by Clement Attlee’s pioneering Labour Government in 1949, alongside the pillars of the welfare state, to rebalance the scales of justice. The principle underpinning its creation was the belief that every person should have equal access to, and protection under, the law, regardless of financial position or social status. That was, and still is, a key way to support our ambition for a fairer society.
Since then, legal aid has been a lifeline for the vulnerable. It has funded action to stop justice being available only to the privileged few in a wide range of areas, from housing and family break-ups to benefits assessments. As Lord Bach stated in a Fabian Society investigation of the state of legal aid, which was recently commissioned by the Labour party:
“We will all lean on the law at some point in our lives… an effective legal system in which all can access justice fairly is the cornerstone of a free society…The law guarantees our rights, underlines our duties, and provides an equitable and orderly means of resolving disputes.”
But in all parts of the UK it is becoming harder and harder for the poorest people to access justice. Access to legal aid lawyers continues to become ever more difficult, with the Law Society warning of “legal aid deserts” where there are no legal providers, or just a sole legal provider, for whole regions.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the number of legal aid providers has fallen by 20% since the Government changed the eligibility criteria?
Absolutely. I will refer to that statistic later. It is a shocking indictment of the cuts and the attrition of the access available to the weakest in our society, who rely on that point of contact and are otherwise shut out of the legal system altogether. Where in our country someone lives should never affect their ability to access justice, but it does, because of the wide variation in availability of legal aid providers.
Legal aid is often a lifeline, particularly for women, when the case is domestic violence, family law or employment tribunals on equal pay, unfair dismissal or discrimination. In my constituency and across the country, it is clear that we need to relearn just how critical legal aid is as a cornerstone of a civilised society. Although Scotland has a distinctive legal system within the United Kingdom, the Law Society of Scotland recently raised concerns about the sustainability of the legal aid system there, stating that, in particular,
“current rates of payment for legal aid work risk making the provision of legal services to some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society”
simply “uneconomical”. We already know that gaps are developing in the provision of legal aid in parts of Scotland, and we must work hard to stop those gaps growing. The Law Society of Scotland also said that a lack of investment in legal assistance had made it
“increasingly difficult to maintain a sustainable, high-quality legal assistance system”
across Scotland. It urged crucial investment to halt the ongoing real-terms decrease in legal aid funding.
Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the Scottish Government’s review of legal aid? The legislation is 30 years old, and the Government now seek to ensure that full access to public legal aid continues.
I think we both recognise that the situation in England and Wales is much more acute than it is in Scotland, but none the less, there are challenges facing the legal system in Scotland. I welcome that review and I hope it will take into consideration the financial constraints that legal aid provision in Scotland has faced in recent years, and take heed of what the Law Society of Scotland has urged.
To look back at the wider issue, an increasing lack of funds across the UK means that a growing number of solicitors will be unable to take on legal aid cases. The report “The financial health of legal aid firms in Scotland” of February this year found that those relying on legal aid might soon be unable to find a solicitor because many law firms simply cannot afford to carry out legal aid work.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and giving us a chance to intervene or speak on the subject. On average, since 2011, Northern Ireland’s annual bill for legal aid has been in excess of £102 million. Does he agree that, as we live in an increasingly litigious world, legal aid must be available to support those who have been wronged and cannot afford redress? Does he further agree that we must ensure they have protection? Protection is what they need, which is why they need legal aid.
I agree. The fundamental, critical point of judgment on this is equality of access, not necessarily cost. Cost is a secondary consideration. Access is the fundamental right that all should be entitled to. That is the challenge we face, whereby some of the smallest legal aid firms are carrying out legal aid work at a loss and are at serious risk of not being able to offer legal aid work at all. Civil legal aid solicitors are paid for only approximately two thirds of the work they carry out, and criminal legal aid solicitors are paid for only three quarters of the work they carry out.
As if that were not bad enough, we have seen even greater ravages to the system in England and Wales following the cuts made by the Tory Government. That has taught us what happens when access to justice is removed from people in our democracy: further inequality, marginalisation of the most vulnerable, a self-defeating increased cost to the public purse and a fundamental impact on our society.
Access to justice has been seriously undermined by the Conservative Government, with hundreds of thousands of people unable to afford to defend their rights following savage cuts to the legal aid budget as part of the 2012 reforms, where the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—LASPO—left many vulnerable people unable to defend themselves in areas as fundamental as housing, employment, immigration and welfare benefits. We have seen not only a decline in access to legal aid providers, but, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), the number of providers cut by a shocking 20% in just five years, and a limiting of the scope of legal aid itself. It has been an all-out assault on justice.
This summer’s Supreme Court ruling that the Government acted unlawfully by imposing employment tribunal fees underlines just how far they have gone in restricting people’s access to justice. We have a Tory Government attacking people’s living standards and, at the same time, deliberately undermining their ability to defend themselves from those very attacks. It is a cynical, Kafkaesque nightmare perpetrated on the poorest. Britain’s most senior judge, Lord Thomas, has said:
“Our justice system has become unaffordable to most.”
Amnesty International’s 2016 report, “Cuts that hurt: the impact of legal aid cuts in England on access to justice”, states:
“Cuts to legal aid imposed by this Government have decimated access to justice and left thousands of the most vulnerable without essential legal advice and support. We are in danger of creating a two-tier civil justice system, open to those who can afford it, but increasingly closed to the poorest and most in need of its protection. From parents fighting for access to their children, to those trying to stay in the country they have grown up in, and to people with mental health problems at risk of homelessness, these cuts have hit the most vulnerable, the most.”
LASPO removed whole areas of law from the scope of legal aid and drastically reduced the percentage of the population eligible for the legal advice service and representation that still exists. Spending has fallen from £2.2 billion to £1.62 billion per year. As a result, the number of civil legal aid cases, which was 573,744 in the year to April 2013, has now fallen to a shocking 146,618 in the year to April 2017. In some regions the fall was even greater. For example, in October The Independent reported:
“Legal aid cuts have triggered a staggering 99.5 per cent collapse in the number of people receiving state help in benefits cases”
with just 440 claimants given assistance in the last financial year, down from a massive 83,000 before the £1 billion of cuts imposed by the Tories. That is absolutely shocking.
One of the Government’s stated aims in no longer funding lawyers for low-income couples arguing over divorce or child arrangements was that that would encourage them to seek mediation instead, but the Government have acknowledged that the opposite has happened, with mediation numbers falling off a cliff and a huge rise in people attempting to navigate the family courts with no lawyer or legal representation. Even more appallingly, not a single person with a discrimination complaint was referred to see a legal aid lawyer in the last year, as BuzzFeed News revealed just last week.
During a time of austerity, it is fanciful to believe that the decline in numbers reflects reduced demand. This is a deliberate effort to exploit the weakest in our society and deny their access to justice.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, first for his securing the debate, and secondly for making such a passionate case. The reality is that professional, useful advice for vulnerable people is decreasing—not only through the diminishing of legal aid, but with citizens advice bureaux being threatened with closure, such as in my constituency. These people need help, and we have a responsibility to them to devise a system that will give them that help.
Absolutely. Wherever vulnerable people in our society turn, they are increasingly finding impediments and blockages placed in their way. That is increasing all sorts of problems and harms that people in society face, including mental and physical health problems.
Although many people have decided to give up pursuing a legal case because of the cost, even where legal aid remains in scope, many now represent themselves in court, as has been mentioned. Since LASPO, for the first time, more than half of parents—58%, many of whom were mothers from poor backgrounds—went to court without a lawyer to fight their case.
As we all know, in many walks of life, spending money early on leads to savings down the line. It was therefore very depressing to observe cuts falling particularly hard on services that help to advise whether someone has a case and how to proceed in the first place, which can prevent problems from escalating. Increasing funding would be a money saving measure, but instead, as so often, the Government, who profess their fiscal prudence, end up throwing good money after bad in their obsession with destroying the fabric of our public realm.
The Government are reviewing LASPO, and we urge them to guarantee the reintroduction of legal aid for early advice from a lawyer as part of that review. Restoring early legal advice would not only help to resolve many legal problems, but would save taxpayers’ money by reducing pressures on the courts and elsewhere. In October, the new President of the Supreme Court, Lady Justice Hale, described LASPO cuts as “a false economy”, and said that early legal advice would help to resolve many legal problems and save money by reducing pressure on the courts system.
As the Law Society explained this week, early legal advice helps to address problems before they escalate. For example, in housing law, although legal aid is still available to defend possession proceedings, that is only when the loss of a home is imminent and the landlord has sought an order for possession. A lack of early legal advice can create unnecessary costs for the taxpayer due to cases going to court that could have been resolved earlier. Worsening legal problems can also create other knock-on effects and costs to the public purse, potentially causing issues such as poor health, homelessness and debt.
Early legal advice is vital in housing law. For example, a lack of early advice on minor disrepair issues can mean problems such as faulty electrics or a leaking roof escalating, potentially creating health, social and financial problems, as we most appallingly saw earlier this year with the Grenfell Tower disaster. Early legal advice is also important in family law, but is no longer available in family breakdown and child custody cases. Because of that, mediation referrals have plummeted, putting pressure on courts and therefore on public finances. A Citizens Advice study estimated that for every £1 of legal aid spending on housing advice, the state saved £2.34; for every £1 spent on debt advice, it saved £2.98; and for every £1 spent on employment advice, a massive £7.13 was saved.
The Labour party is seeking to repair the broken justice system to ensure that people can defend their basic legal rights. One of the first acts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) as Labour leader was to support the establishment of a commission on access to justice, made up of legal experts and chaired by Lord Bach, whom I mentioned earlier. Over nearly two years, the commission heard from more than 100 individuals and organisations with special expertise in all parts of the justice system. The commission proposed, among other measures, the return of legal aid in some areas and increasing the availability of early legal advice.
There is much in Lord Bach’s report that the Government could implement ahead of the next general election if they were serious about restoring access to justice. Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto committed the party to
“immediately re-establish early advice entitlements in the Family Courts”,
which includes protecting children from harm and most domestic violence cases. The Government should do the same.
The Government must use their review of LASPO fundamentally to repair the damage caused by their legal aid reforms since 2012, rather than simply to apply a sticking plaster to what is, it is increasingly apparent, a broken system. They should also use the review to look at restoring legal aid for early legal help on housing and welfare benefits. Opposition Members also urge the Government to review the legal aid means tests, including the capital tests for those on income-related benefits.
In Scotland, we need to continue pushing to ensure sufficient resources for legal aid providers, so that provision is maintained. That includes challenging the long-term underfunding of the system, and the modernisation and streamlining of legal aid, to ensure that access is available to any citizen in need of its support. My constituents, and people across Scotland and the rest of the UK, must be able to have confidence in our legal systems and must be confident that the social status or wealth of an individual cannot usurp the most basic concepts of right and wrong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) for securing the debate. May I also compliment the Labour party on introducing legal aid 68 years ago? It has been of great benefit to many over that 68 years and continues to be so.
Here in the United Kingdom, we are rightly proud that everyone is equal under the law. Across the United Kingdom, our separate legal systems are united by the common principles of fairness, equality and respect for human rights, which have made the British justice system respected worldwide. Legal aid is crucial to ensuring that our justice systems live up to those principles. Without it, access to justice would become the preserve only of those who can afford it.
Legal aid is there to ensure that as many persons as practicable, regardless of their ability to pay legal fees, which can be very expensive, have access to fair representation in a bid to obtain their legal rights. That is why our legal aid system must be sustainable and up to date, and I for one am pleased that the UK Government recognise that and have reformed legal aid in England and Wales to modernise it and to put it on a secure financial footing for the future.
United Kingdom spending on legal aid massively outstrips the European average; it dwarfs that of most European nations and is, surprisingly, above France’s and Germany’s.
The hon. Gentleman is comparing apples and oranges. The legal systems in France and other European countries are different from the adversarial system we have here. It is probably not fair to compare only legal aid budgets, without looking at overall justice costs.
The hon. Gentleman may well be right. The fact is that we spend more per head than Germany, but I accept that that there are other considerations to take into account.
The hon. Gentleman is making an error by reading out the Minister’s speech from the LASPO Bill’s Committee stage five years ago. What he says is no truer now than it was then. He should be looking at the effects of legal aid cuts, not the incorrect predictions made at the time the legislation went through Parliament.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the decisions on cuts. They adjusted the system. It is a suitable system, which still remains, and I am sure many people will continue to benefit from legal aid.
As has been said, legal aid is devolved in Scotland and decisions on its provision are quite rightly the Scottish Government’s to make. Funding for legal aid was £138 million in a previous year; it is now down slightly by some millions, but it is fair to say that, per head, Scotland’s legal aid spending is broadly in line with the UK Government’s spending in England and Wales. When the Scottish National party came to power in Holyrood, Scotland’s legal aid system was 20 years old, as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) said. Ten years on, that system is 30 years old, and it now needs to be looked at, as I am sure he would agree. After a decade of SNP rule, and despite the enactment of the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, Scotland’s legal system would benefit from further reform.
It is true that we have seen some change, such as the court decision that prompted the Scottish Government to reconsider its Ministers’ decision not to exercise discretion to provide legal aid to an alleged victim of domestic abuse who sought to oppose attempts to obtain her medical records. The Scottish Conservatives had repeatedly asked for that change, to bring Scotland into line with England and Wales, but the Scottish Government repeatedly refused until the courts forced their hand. They were then slow to act: only in February did they finally see fit to launch a review of the Scottish legal aid system, which I commend. I hope the Scottish Government act soon and follow the UK Government’s lead in making legal aid sustainable, modern and fit for the future.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the Scottish Government should follow the UK Government’s example by removing family, immigration, housing and welfare cases from the scope of legal aid? He cannot possibly think that that would be a positive development.
It will be entirely up to the Scottish Government to decide what course they take.
Order. It is my intention to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.28 pm, which hopefully will allow two minutes for Mr Sweeney to respond. If hon. Members keep their speeches to five or six minutes, that will enable me to call everyone who attempts to catch my eye.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing the debate. Mindful of your guidance, Mr Robertson, I will minimise my comments on the detail of what has happened to legal aid provision since LASPO was introduced.
The position was summarised very well this summer in the Law Society’s report, “Access Denied?”, which said that legal aid is no longer available for those who need it, that those eligible for legal aid find it hard to access, that wide gaps in provision are not being addressed and that LASPO has had a wide and detrimental impact on the state and on society. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East explained how the scale of the reductions in legal aid provision has worked out in practice. We know that the total number of matter starts for legal aid and controlled legal work fell from 933,815 cases in 2010 to 147,107 this year. That is a staggeringly precipitous fall in provision.
Although this debate is rightly about legal aid, it is worth mentioning the wider context. Legal aid sits alongside the provision of wider advice services, many of which were funded by local authorities, and in many cases there was co-provision of such services in the same premises. Because local government has had a 40% fall in funding in recent years, mainstream advice services and other forms of early help have also taken a significant cut. As my hon. Friend said, and I am sure everyone who contributes to the debate will say, it is often the most vulnerable people who experience the most deleterious consequences—people who are suffering from mental health problems, people who have language difficulties, people who are extremely stressed as a consequence of debt, benefit difficulties and impending homelessness. They need that assistance, but it has not been available.
I have one of the largest constituency caseloads involving disability benefits in the country. Often it is not understood that this is an inner-London issue, but it very much is. Those of us who have a significant welfare caseload in our constituencies have seen in particular the consequences for people who are losing their employment and support allowance, have lost their disability living allowance or are making claims for personal independence payments. They have found it extremely difficult to get not only early help but representation and advocacy to get their benefits restored, despite the well documented evidence that such early assistance significantly improves a claimant’s chances of being successful at appeal.
The local advice agencies in my area draw a clear line between the lack of early help, the consequences for people losing their benefits and the direct rise of dependency on food banks. There has been a 56% rise in the number of cases going to my local citizens advice bureau—often cases that previously would have been picked up by early legal help—and my food bank in north Paddington has seen a doubling of demand for its services. Those things are connected. In my borough, there has been a 93% fall in family legal help cases; a 26% fall in housing legal help; a 51% fall in housing certificated assistance, despite a sharp rise in homelessness, in common with many other local areas; a 100% fall in welfare; a 99% fall in debt advice; and a 46% fall in the number of solicitors’ firms taking on cases. In common with many Members of Parliament, I have experienced a sharp rise in the number of people who are coming to me and to local councillors to seek the kind of legal help that they are no longer able to get because of the fall in legal aid provision.
Today’s debate is very well timed, with the announcement that the post-implementation review is under way. As has been referred to, the Law Society’s report on early help came out this week. I am sure I will not be the only one to reference and give huge credit to the Willy Bach commission report, which sets out a comprehensive analysis of what has happened since LASPO was introduced. I hope the work of the Law Society and the Bach commission will inform the Minister’s review.
I have few questions for the Minister about the post-implementation review; it will be helpful if he can provide answers. What reassurances can he give that the post-implementation review will be thorough? The memorandum to the Justice Committee says it will be thorough, but we want to know what that will mean. Who will be on the advisory panels? Will the thorough work and consultation necessary to make this a meaningful review take place before Parliament rises for the summer recess next year? How will the review be conducted? Who will be consulted and how? Will there be written and oral evidence?
On early advice, we know about the impact of the reduction in numbers on the sustainability of practitioners. Ministry of Justice figures indicate that the total number of not-for-profits with legal aid contracts has fallen from 870 to 95 post-LASPO. That is a drop of 89%. Can the Minister assure us that, whatever the outcomes of the post-implementation review, there will be enough providers to pick up any additional provision of advice? Do the Government know how many people will be available to deliver legal aid after the changes are made? Many areas are now advice deserts, with law centres and practitioners having had to close. Who will provide this advice and what is the Minister doing to ensure there will be a flow of lawyers into an increasingly stressful and under-resourced legal aid service?
The Government say that the exceptional case funding system is a safety net. When it was discussed in Parliament, we were told that 5,000 to 7,000 cases per year were expected. In fact, the number of cases has been extremely limited. How will the Minister review that and ensure that exceptional case funding is adequate for purposes?
How will the shortfall in county court offices since their reduction be met? County court offices used to be able to assist not by giving legal advice, but at least providing some support—for example, if someone was applying to suspend a warrant, they could obtain the form and get the application listed through the county court. Now, many court offices are open for very limited hours or just for appointments, and that is another hurdle. Is the Minister aware of that, and can he give us some reassurance?
Finally, on the promises to improve the service for victims of domestic violence, we know that reforms have been thrashed out and that Ministry of Justice staff and family groups have been working on it. The Government have admitted that changes need to be made to protect those suffering domestic abuse, but that has been delayed for a number of months. Can the Minister tell us when those changes will be brought in?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid. They have set out some of the facts and figures that show the astonishing decline in the availability of legal aid since the enactment of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and I will not repeat those.
I had the pleasure—if that is the right word—of leading for the Opposition, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and the noble Lord Bach, during the year-long Committee stage of the LASPO Bill. It was pretty obvious then what the consequences were going to be, but we do not have to predict now; we have seen those consequences. That is why I was quite surprised to hear the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) repeating the shibboleths that we heard at that time: that this was just bringing us into line with what happens elsewhere, and that these were perfectly reasonable and affordable cuts. The figures we have seen show that the contrary is true.
In the other place, I think there were 11 defeats and three tied votes, all of which unfortunately were substantially reversed in this House. That was a significant indication of the level of concern, even while the Bill was going through Parliament. Were it not for the extraordinary discipline of the Liberal Democrats—this is possibly the only issue that all Members here will agree on—there would have been many more defeats, and we might have stopped some of these cuts going through. The Liberal Democrats turned out night after night to vote for legal aid cuts in the most stringent terms and ensure that those changes went through, with better discipline than the Tory peers, and we will continue to remind them about that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East said, that was a sea change. It was reversing the legal aid policies put forward by the Labour Government of 1945 to ’50. The Bill at that time made legal aid permissive. In other words, legal aid was available, except where the legislation said that it was not available. LASPO completely reverses that and says that one has to define exactly the very specific means by which legal aid is made available. The net result is not only that in many areas, particularly of social welfare law, legal aid has been withdrawn specifically, but that in reality it has been withdrawn entirely, because neither the voluntary sector nor private practice can continue it with what meagre fare there is to allow it to operate. Many areas of the country have become advice deserts.
To pick up on the advice deserts point, during my 16-year parliamentary career, the Ministry of Justice and the local justice departments have very much moved away from their local communities and are now incredibly distant from the communities that they served. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to localise provision in a much better and more responsive way?
My hon. Friend knows that very well from his professional background. I entirely agree with him and will say in a moment what I think should be done to reverse what he describes, but while we are diagnosing the problem, I must point out that there has been an extraordinary effect on the advice sector and on the courts. Indeed, we can see it in our surgeries. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I now provide 20-minute appointments, and often that is not long enough to see constituents. I refrain, not having a practice specifically any more, from giving legal advice, but that is in effect what people are coming to ask for, whether in areas of family law, immigration, employment or housing. Those are not the sorts of complaint or issue that I remember dealing with 10 years ago. These people have come, possibly as a first port of call, to Members of Parliament—research has shown that this is the case—simply because there is nowhere else to go.
Let me use the example of my constituency. Many of our advice agencies—such as Threshold, which provides specialist housing advice, and the Shepherd’s Bush advice centre—and many of the specialist agencies dealing with specific communities have simply closed down. I am very lucky, in that I have an extremely supportive council. Labour took power again in 2014, and it is now rehousing and properly funding the Hammersmith law centre, which I have had the pleasure of being on the board of for some 30 years. Therefore, along with the citizens advice bureaux, some good provision remains in the area, but I suspect that it is the exception rather than the rule.
I pay tribute not only to Members of the House who have taken an interest in the subject, but to the practitioners out there in the country. My law centre is watched over by Sue James, who was legal aid lawyer of the year after 25 years of practice and setting up other law centres in London. It is the dedication of people such as her, Carol Storer of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group and Nicola Mackintosh that has in effect, despite the Government’s best efforts, kept the legal aid system going in this country over this period. However, it is absolutely at breaking point.
I therefore have something to ask of the Minister, who is an intelligent and fair man and knowledgeable in these areas, when he does the review, but let me just say this about the review. It is being done at the last possible moment, and possibly beyond the last possible moment, because if I remember correctly, the undertaking given during the passage of LASPO was that the review would begin within three to five years. I think that the end of the five years will be next April and that the review is not starting till the summer, so we really are squeezing it into the last minute. I hope that it will be a proper review and that it will look in particular at the Bach commission report, because that is an extremely thorough report by the people in this country who probably best understand the issue and the problems that arise. I hope that it looks across the board at what needs to be done—not just, as we have heard, at early advice and the restoration of legal aid, particularly in areas of social welfare law, but at the means test, at the system for contributions and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) said, at the localisation of services, because nothing is really working at the moment.
We need a root-and-branch review, and fresh legislation may well be required. Unless the Government are prepared to look at the matter with fresh eyes, instead of taking the blinkered approach that was taken with LASPO, it will be not only bad for my constituents and those of other hon. Members present, but bad for the system of justice in this country, because the courts are not functioning properly. Litigants in person are flooding the courts, and there are delays throughout the system. The compound effect of cuts in the legal aid system and the Courts Service over the past five years is that we can no longer say that we have a system of justice of which we can be proud, and I greatly regret that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. As a former employment rights lawyer, I am passionate about legal aid and access to justice. Many of my hon. Friends have made important points about the need for increased access to justice. Coincidentally, yesterday I chaired a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party’s Back-Bench justice group on this very subject, drawing particular attention to the measures outlined in the Bach commission report, which aims to redress the injustices caused by LASPO.
I am firmly of the view that the abolition of legal aid for early advice is a false economy. It means that far more cases end up going to court that should have been resolved earlier. My experience as a lawyer was that when I gave clients clear legal advice from the outset about their prospects of success, they were far less likely to pursue an unmeritorious claim through the courts. The removal of legal aid for early advice has caused a clear and undeniable increase in the number of people representing themselves in court.
National Audit Office figures and research by the Law Society show a staggering 30% increase in litigants in person in family court cases. In that emotive area of law, litigants in person often result in longer hearings and in victims of domestic violence having to face their abuser in court. Moreover, the failure to provide early legal advice can have significant knock-on effects for other departments and the public purse. For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) said, the cost of someone being evicted because they have not had access to housing legal advice at an early stage is far greater than the cost of the advice itself. That is not to mention the societal impact.
However, I want to use this opportunity to talk about legal aid for inquests. A number of my hon. Friends will be aware of, and indeed many of them have signed, early-day motion 498 on this important matter, which I tabled. It calls for legal aid to be provided to the family of the deceased in all cases in which the state is funding one or more of the other parties. Inquests have never fallen into the main body of legal aid provision. Legal aid for inquests is available only at the discretion of the Legal Aid Agency under the “exceptional case funding” provisions introduced by LASPO. Exceptional case funding is available for categories of law that are not ordinarily in scope of legal aid, and where failure to provide legal services would breach an individual’s rights under the European convention on human rights, or other enforceable EU rights relating to the provision of legal services.
However, exceptional case funding applications are complex and time-consuming. Lawyers receive payment for an ECF application only if it is successful, and although the Legal Aid Agency will accept applications from applicants in person, very few are made and even fewer are successful. In addition, the definition of exceptional case funding does not provide an adequate safety net for inquests, as an applicant has to show that there is an article 2—right to life—issue, or a wider public interest in legal aid being granted.
The Law Society’s “Access Denied?” publication drew attention to the case of five-year-old Alexia Walenkaki, who died of head injuries while playing on a swing in the children’s play area in a London park. The swing was suspended from two tree trunks when one of them toppled over on to the child. Alexia’s mother applied for exceptional case funding in order to be represented at the inquest. However, the application for legal aid was refused by the Legal Aid Agency on the grounds that it did not meet the LASPO requirement that the representation be in the public interest, despite the fact that the case involved consideration of a local authority’s responsibility to ensure safety in a public area.
Legal aid for inquests is even more important, as most bereaved families will not be able to afford private legal representation, particularly for lengthy inquest hearings. Most recently, the Hillsborough inquiry shone a light on this important issue, calling for families to be fully involved in inquests, and for equality of arms, so that no one is under-represented in these critical types of cases.
The Bach commission report acknowledges that access to justice is lacking in this area and that reform is urgently needed. I tabled early-day motion 498 on legal aid for inquests as I believe the Government should take urgent action in this area, and provide access to justice for bereaved families by providing crucially needed legal aid to the family of the deceased in all cases where the state is funding one or more of the other parties. I urge Members from across the House to sign the early-day motion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing it.
To get perspective on the problem of access to legal aid, we first need to remind ourselves that the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 came in as one of the Labour Government’s swathe of measures to help alleviate poverty in the welfare state following the 1945 election victory. Over the years, scope was increased to keep up to date with social developments, but over the past 25 years, we have seen a gradual erosion of legal aid, culminating in a full-scale attack on it via the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, or LASPO, to give it its shorter name.
Let us be under no illusions: LASPO was introduced under the cloak of austerity to cut the legal aid budget. To that extent, it has succeeded, cutting the total spend on legal aid from £2.499 billion in 2010-11 to £1.554 billion in 2016-17: a cut of £945 million, or 38%, to give the percentage total. Taking areas such as some family law and welfare law out of scope is having a devastating effect on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Couples who split up, sometimes acrimoniously, and who disagree about access to the children are not legally represented owing to the cuts, leaving a judge in the invidious position of trying to sort out the case with limited documentation. Who knows what the impact will be on the children while the court tries to muddle through the process? This could be the most important decision in a child’s life, yet we are likely to have two aggrieved people thrown into a combative situation, with terminology and procedures misunderstood, and making matters worse for the child. Or there are instances where a vulnerable person has a valid case for claiming backdated housing benefit, but is unable to find a lawyer to help, because an application to a social security tribunal is taken out of scope, leaving the person with arrears of rent and facing eviction. We have gone from 80% of people being eligible for legal aid to only 20% being eligible. The onslaught on the legal profession owing to the legal aid cuts has resulted in legal aid firms closing, leaving legal advice deserts in more and more parts of the country, and people desperate, with little chance of getting proper representation.
In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) on 11 September 2017, the Ministry of Justice said that nationally the number of legal aid providers had fallen from 2,991 in 2012 to 2,393 in 2017. That is a fall of 598, or nearly 20%, in five years. The firms that have survived are also struggling as legal aid rates have not increased in over 20 years. I congratulate the Law Society on its excellent recent report on legal aid, as referred to by my hon. Friends the Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck), for Glasgow North East, and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves).
The legal aid cuts are also impacting on barristers. Junior criminal barristers face a crazy situation whereby they would receive only £44 for doing a plea in Coventry tomorrow, when the train fare is £83 and not recoverable. Would anybody seriously do a job that would leave them out of pocket? The truth is that the legal aid cuts are a false economy and end up costing us all more in the long run. Goldsmiths University has estimated that every £1 cut in legal aid costs us all £6 in additional services provided.
So what is to be done? Hon. Friends have referred to the Bach commission’s final report, “The Right to Justice”, which was published in September this year. It made 22 recommendations to improve access to justice and redress the failure of LASPO, which has left many people unable to access justice because they cannot afford to. The 22 recommendations, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), include: creating a right to justice Act, which would enshrine the right of access to justice in statute and would set up a justice commission to advise, monitor and enforce that right; reforming legal aid assessment, so that anyone in receipt of a means-tested benefit is automatically eligible for legal aid; broadening the scope of legal aid, so that all social welfare law, matters relating to children, various areas of private family law, immigration and inquests, which were so eloquently referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge, are brought back into scope; replacing the Legal Aid Agency with an independent body that is at arm’s length from the Government; and reducing the administrative burden on providers.
In addition to implementing the recommendations, we need to repeal LASPO and make sure that legal advice is provided earlier and quicker, along the lines of the old green form scheme. We also need to embrace technology and educate the general public as to their rights, and we need to ensure that the legal aid system is fit for purpose, so that we do not get miscarriages of justice because of the cuts, or see the decimation of the legal profession that does legal aid work. We should never forget that the legal aid scheme was designed to help the most vulnerable in our society, and right now the system is failing them.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
Today’s debate cuts right to the heart of what we mean by justice. Legal aid has been a crucial instrument in ensuring that equal access to justice is attainable. After all, if access to justice is not equal, can we call it justice at all? My surgeries, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), are full of people seeking legal advice. Unlike many hon. Members here today, I do not have a legal background.
The exact meaning of justice may be contested, but it should be quite clear to us all that a society that allows for adequate legal representation for those who can afford it while denying the same opportunities for those who cannot is not a just society. As we have heard, the Law Society has reported on the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Its findings are stark and paint a picture of a Government prioritising savings for the Exchequer over basic legal rights for our citizens. It makes 25 recommendations to improve the provision of legal advice and representation. It will be interesting to see whether this Government will actually implement the recommendations of one of our foremost legal organisations.
The 2012 Act has significantly reduced the number of areas of law in which legal aid applies, while at the same time tightening the criteria for qualification. Among the findings of the Law Society report is one that
“Large numbers of people, including children and those on low incomes, are now excluded from whole areas of free or subsidised legal advice”.
It describes changes to means testing as “counter-intuitive”, and even where people qualify for legal aid, they often struggle to access it due to inadequate provision of services, resulting in “legal aid deserts”.
Reductions in central Government funds have forced many high street legal aid firms and third sector providers to go under. The increase in legal aid deserts has resulted in many people who qualify for legal aid not being able to access it. Almost a third of the legal aid areas in England and Wales have one or no legal aid housing advice providers. Neither Shropshire nor Suffolk has a housing legal aid advice provider. Children, people with mental health issues and people with low levels of literacy and numeracy are now excluded as a result of changes to legal aid provision.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights condemned the lack of access to justice for children back in 2015 and called on the Government to correct that astonishing situation. Those calls were not heeded. The Act prevents the maximum income cap for legal aid qualification from increasing with inflation, while capital eligibility rules mean there are many benefit claimants who do not qualify for legal aid. The Justice Committee has argued that a lack of sufficient advertising of the mandatory telephone gateway has resulted in its underuse, although it is intended to be the initial point of contact for legal advice on debt, special educational needs and discrimination law.
At every turn the Government have sought to cut public services, but equal access to justice must be one of the fundamental tenets of a healthy democracy. That the Government so wilfully undermine that principle tells us all we need to know about their priorities: not ensuring fairness, not ensuring the preservation of basic rights and not ensuring a good society—social security for the rich, economic insecurity for the rest. Without legal representation being available to all, we no longer have a system of justice, but a system of privilege.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. We have had a good and lively debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing it. This is an important subject because a well functioning system of legal aid is a crucial means of ensuring access to justice, and is therefore essential for the operation of the rule of law and democracy itself. This subject has been raised a number of times even in the couple of years that I have been an MP, reflecting widespread concerns about the radical overhaul of legal aid since LASPO came into force in 2013. With the review of LASPO going ahead in England and Wales, and the Scottish Government conducting their own review of legislation that is now 30 years old, now is an appropriate time for this debate.
The hon. Gentleman made a couple of points in relation to Scotland, and if time permits I will say a little bit about that. For now, suffice it to say that the review there will be building from a strong position. That is remarkably different from the system created by the UK Government, where a 38% real-terms cut in funding has left hundreds of thousands to navigate the law and the legal system alone, not because of their means, but because the scope of the legal aid scheme has been drastically reduced. If you went down to the courts in London, Mr Robertson, you would struggle to find a single litigant lawyer or judge who would say that the system in England and Wales is better than the one in Scotland; it would be the reverse.
While the UK Government’s review of LASPO is welcome, if we are honest we already know it has been a complete disaster—one which, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) has pointed out, could have been averted had the Government engaged in discussion and looked at evidence before introducing LASPO, rather than five years after it wreaked havoc on the justice system. Whether it is the Justice Committee of this House, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the legal profession or third sector organisations, few if any have a good word to say about the reforms.
The statistics, as the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said, illustrate a drastic reduction in the number of cases of publicly funded representation right from the implementation of the LASPO Act, but it is individual stories about those who are left without access to justice that bring home the reality of the problem. Credit must be given to organisations such as Amnesty International and Coram Children’s Legal Centre for highlighting some of those cases in various reports and briefings. When the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales is saying publicly that
“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most,”
there can be no doubt that we are in a bad place.
There cannot be a starker example of austerity at all costs than the LASPO cuts, which were introduced without
“any proper evidence-based research,”
according to chairman of the Bar association. Parliament’s Justice Committee found that LASPO had unambiguously failed to achieve three of its four stated goals, including targeting legal aid towards those who need it most, delivering better overall value for money, and discouraging unnecessary and adversarial litigation. In relation to the fourth and final goal the Committee stated that
“while it had made significant savings in the cost of the scheme, the Ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants”.
On the subject of claimant savings, which the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and others spoke about, I hope the review will consider the extent to which those so-called savings, like too many other austerity cuts, are in fact costs passed on to other public services. As the Justice Committee also said, efforts to target legal aid
“have suffered from the weakness that they have often been aimed at the point after a crisis has already developed, such as in housing repossession cases, rather than being preventive.”
Money saved by the Ministry of Justice means more money spent by homelessness services and social work departments. Meanwhile courts are required to spend more time and resources dealing with party litigants.
The arguments for LASPO the Government used in previous debates have struggled to stand up to scrutiny. They sought to justify the cuts on the basis that it encourages mediation, but as we heard earlier, that is not happening, and I think the Government now acknowledge that. In the year prior to LASPO, there were 31,000 mediation assessments and 14,000 mediation starts, but by 2016-17 the numbers had fallen to 13,000 mediation assessments and 7,700 mediation starts—reductions of 61% and 44% respectively. As the Government were told beforehand, people who are given early legal advice will be more inclined than those who are not to the view that mediation is the best course of action.
Another key argument used in the past is that the legal aid system in England and Wales is one of the most generous in the world. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) hinted at that. As I said in my intervention on him, that is comparing apples and oranges, particularly in relation to continental systems, which are inquisitorial rather than adversarial, so more resources are spent on other parts of the system than legal aid. England and Wales may have one of the most expensive legal aid bills in Europe, but it is a long way down the European league table overall when we look at the total bill for providing justice.
The Scottish Government have announced their own review of legal aid. In previous debates on this subject, I quoted from an article by Professor Alan Paterson, so I am pleased to see he has been included in the Government’s review board. He is a legal academic at Strathclyde University and chair of the International Legal Action Group. In 2012, as LASPO was making its way through this place, he wrote an article highlighting that in fact, per capita spend on legal aid in England and Wales had been higher than in Scotland. He asked whether that meant that provision in Scotland was less extensive or generous. The answer was that, on the contrary, the Scottish scheme was still more generous, even in those circumstances.
First, the Scottish system was more generous in scope. That is even more true after LASPO. For example, in Scotland you can still get legal advice and representation on housing, debt, immigration, family, employment law and so on. Secondly, it remained more generous in coverage, with a significantly higher proportion of the population financially eligible for legal aid. The Scottish system had managed to achieve lower per capita spend while remaining more generous. Even if all of Lord Bach’s recommendations were fulfilled, Scotland’s system would remain more generous than that in England and Wales. There were some reasons why that was the case, which went well beyond policy choices, including, for example, the high prevalence of expensive fraud cases in England and Wales. However, for Professor Paterson the crucial difference was that there had been greater success in Scotland in reforming court procedures, both civil and criminal, to reduce legal aid spend. Instead of reducing legal aid spend by not funding people properly to access the court system, the court system was made cheaper to fund access to.
In the months ahead, the group on which Professor Paterson sits, chaired by the CEO of Carnegie Trust and involving lawyers, police, Citizen Advice and others, will look for
“specific measures to reform Scotland’s system of legal aid, maintaining access to public funding for legal advice and representation in both civil and criminal cases, alongside measures to expand access to alternative methods of resolving disputes.”
It is due to report back in February and I hope its findings can feed into the LASPO review. It will most definitely not follow the example of the UK Government in introducing LASPO, despite the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. The one thing I am absolutely confident about is that those reforms have a greater chance of success, because they start from a strong place and they will be informed by evidence and engagement rather than the product of a simple austerity drive. That is the key flaw in LASPO, and it is why this Government should rip it up and start again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing this important debate. He made an excellent speech. The Government’s approach to access to justice is a marker of the way they view the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Though I am relatively new to this brief, some would say I am lucky—or unlucky—to have so many former lawyers on my own side. Regardless of expertise, what unites us in the Labour party is that we all believe that no matter how much someone earns, what their background is or where they come from, our justice system should be there for them when they are at their most vulnerable.
The truth is that the changes to legal aid mean that there is now one rule for the rich and another for the poor. Those with money can pay for justice; those without are forced to represent themselves, or give up on justice altogether. That was at the crux of the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), who said it is just not a just society if it operates like that. If someone has been a victim of discrimination at work, has had their benefits wrongly sanctioned and faces losing their home, or is fighting a bitter custody battle, the very last thing they have the energy for is fighting a lengthy battle to get legal representation or, worse, representing themselves in court.
Earlier this year, the Labour party’s review of legal aid, chaired by Lord Willy Bach, found a system that was fundamentally broken. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) detailed many of the Bach commission’s recommendations. In particular, the Opposition are concerned about the impact changes have had on victims, particularly the most vulnerable such as children and victims of domestic abuse; the knock-on impact on access to justice more broadly, even for areas of law still within the scope of legal aid; and the human and financial cost of LASPO.
Legal professionals have warned of a sharp rise in the number of people forced to represent themselves in court to access the justice they deserve. The Public and Commercial Services Union has warned that aggression towards court staff is rising because people are left to navigate the complex legal and court system on their own and without support. Recently, BuzzFeed reported that a grandmother in Gloucester had to represent herself in court to prevent her grandchild from being put up for adoption, because legal aid is no longer available for family law. She was told it would cost her between £10,000 and £12,000—her entire income for a year—in court fees if she paid for legal representation herself. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, there are desperate cases like that coming through surgeries because, as he put it, “There is nowhere else to go.” Will the Minister confirm what the rise in litigants in person has been since the introduction of the LASPO Act?
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the rise in people having to represent themselves is its impact on victims of abuse. It is well known that abusers will use the court system to continue their abuse. Imagine having the courage to leave an abusive relationship—to uproot the kids and start life over—only to find five years later that that abuser is taking you to court to claim visiting rights to the children. Now imagine being told that you are not eligible for legal aid and you have a choice: go to court and represent yourself and your children, allowing your abuser to sit opposite you in court while their lawyer talks about your fitness to be a parent and even cross-examines you, or give in, give up and allow him to have contact with your kids. That is the choice women have faced because of the legal aid changes brought in by this Government.
Those changes include stringent evidence tests requiring victims to prove they have been a victim of abuse to qualify for legal aid, and a time limit on the validity of that evidence. Some women have even reported being charged up to £175 by their doctor to provide that evidence. Charities such as Rights of Women and Women’s Aid warned that these tests could rule out as many as 40% of domestic violence victims from being eligible for legal aid, and the High Court agreed, demanding that the Government remove the time limit. It has been 21 months since that ruling, yet we are still waiting for reform.
Last month, I wrote to the Justice Secretary asking for the date when changes would be introduced. I am still waiting. Will the Minister confirm now, on the record, when the Government will introduce these long overdue reforms, which organisations they have consulted in preparing the new regulations and whether they will be scrapping fees for obtaining prescribed evidence such as a doctor’s letter or police disclosure? Victims of domestic violence deserve peace of mind and justice.
It is not just within areas of law removed from the scope of legal aid where justice is being denied. According to the Law Commission, advice deserts have opened up across areas of the country because huge cuts to legal aid law have forced providers and law centres to close their doors. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) made the point that that is happening alongside cuts to local government and citizens advice bureaux, so people really struggle to get the advice they need. In response to my question, the Government admitted that the number of legal aid providers has fallen by 20% since the introduction of LASPO.
Is my hon. Friend also aware that, as has been mentioned by some colleagues, many providers are making excessive personal sacrifices to try to keep some of these services on the road? I am aware of a provider in my constituency where staff have gone without wages for a month in the year to try to keep a service functioning. Those services, and those individuals who are bearing that burden as providers, need to be given praise and credit for their commitment.
I will happily give praise and credit, in particular to the people my hon. Friend mentions, but what sort of society is it where those people are having to make choices like that? I thank her for that intervention.
The number of applicants for civil legal aid for domestic violence cases such as protection orders—technically still within the scope of legal aid—has fallen by 20% since 2011-12. The number of domestic violence incidents has risen in that time, so we can only assume that that fall is due to a lack of specialist legal advice. Will the Minister commit now to reviewing urgently the availability of specialist legal aid advice for victims of domestic violence to ensure no victim is put at risk by legal aid cuts?
The human cost of the LASPO Act is hard to underestimate, but perhaps the most scandalous part of this is that we now know that instead of saving money it is likely to have cost us huge sums, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East said. Last week, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), the Justice Minister revealed that the budget will have fallen in real terms by 40% since 2010-11, from £9.3 billion to £5.6 billion, which risks tipping our justice system from crisis into full-blown emergency.
This week, however, a study released by the Law Society found that the removal of access to early legal advice means many more cases are ending up in lengthy court hearings rather than being resolved beforehand. Last month—I make no apologies for repeating this point—the new President of the Supreme Court, Lady Justice Hale, said LASPO cuts are likely to prove “a false economy” because removal of access to early legal advice means people cannot resolve legal problems out of court, which places more pressure on courts. According to the PCS union the rise in litigants in person and failure to access early legal advice are leading to lengthy court delays.
In fact, the Government have already acknowledged that removal of early legal advice is a false economy. Last month, their post-legislative memorandum submitted to the Justice Committee admitted that legal aid cuts have led to the number of families and couples seeking mediation rather than court settlements dropping off a cliff. Labour is committed to immediately re-establishing entitlements to early legal advice in family courts once in government. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government plan to do the same, and will he confirm what assessment the Government have made of the associated costs of their cuts to legal aid?
We welcome the announcement of a review of the impact of LASPO, but for many victims this is five years too late, and without a clear timetable or commitment to act on recommendations, how can victims have the assurance they need that things will change? Will the Minister confirm on what date the review will conclude, which organisations the Government will consult as part of the review and when the Government plan to introduce any recommendations?
We might never know how many families have faced destitution or how many victims have given up on justice altogether as a result of those cuts. I hope the Government take seriously the concerns of service providers, legal professionals, court staff and victims themselves, and act to restore access to justice for some of the most vulnerable in our society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) for securing this debate and for his powerful, tenacious speech.
One thing we all agree on at least as a matter of principle, is that legal aid is a fundamental pillar of access to justice. Last year, the Ministry of Justice spent £1.6 billion on legal aid in England and Wales, which accounts for more than a fifth of the Ministry’s budget. The Government have a responsibility to make sure that those in the greatest hardship, at the times of greatest need, can secure access to justice, that the most vulnerable are catered for, and that the resources are made available to do that. That is a responsibility that we take very seriously.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, legal aid in Scotland is a devolved matter. I appreciate that in this debate he has not talked a lot about that. It is also devolved in Northern Ireland. I can address the provision of legal aid in only England and Wales, for which we are responsible. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) raised this in relation to spending, but I would note that the Council of Europe’s most recent survey post-LASPO found that spending on legal aid per person in England and Wales was the highest of all Council of Europe members. The hon. Gentleman quite fairly made the point that we have a different system from the one used in many parts of continental Europe. Of course, the Council of Europe survey also looks at the spending per capita in Scotland, and in England and Wales it is 13% higher. Neither he nor the hon. Member for Glasgow North East touched on that, for all their critique of the system in England and Wales.
In fairness, I did touch on that by mentioning the fact that Alan Paterson highlighted the higher per capita spending in England and Wales compared with Scotland. He said that the reason for that was Scotland’s greater success in reducing the cost of courts, so the total bill was made smaller not by excluding folk from the scope of legal aid but by making courts less expensive to run.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and hope he accepts the figure showing that the spending in England and Wales per capita is 13% higher. I agree with him on a point that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East did not take up: this is not just about how much money is spent, but about how the resources are allocated. Indeed, the question of access to justice is broader than purely the administration or funding of legal aid, so on that point, I accept what he said.
In truth, the legal aid scheme has been the subject of regular change since its inception. Spending has increased substantially, and all Administrations—Labour, the coalition, and Conservative—have sought to exercise control over spending in recent times. I think we all agree that we need to exercise control over legal aid and other precious public services in order to ensure that the finite, precious resources go to those who need them most.
The most recent reforms were part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which came in the context of huge financial pressure on the country’s finances. The reforms were founded on the principle of ensuring that legal aid continues to be available for the highest priority cases—for example, when an individual’s life or liberty is at stake, when someone faces the loss of their home, in domestic violence cases, or when children may be taken into care—and in achieving that, delivering better value for money for taxpayers by reducing the cost of the scheme and discouraging unnecessary litigation. Again, although this has not been mentioned today, in some cases—not all—going to court is not the right thing to do, and I will touch on that if I have time later.
I appreciate that the changes in LASPO were contentious. They were subjected to a significant amount of rigorous scrutiny at the time, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said. They were debated extensively and amendments were made before the legislation was approved by Parliament. It has been several years since the implementation of those landmark reforms, so it is absolutely right to take stock. That is why we recently laid before the House a detailed, post-legislative memorandum summarising how LASPO was implemented and making a preliminary assessment of its impact. In addition, my predecessors made a commitment to the House to conduct a detailed post-implementation review of the changes to establish to what degree the reforms had achieved their objectives. It is right that we are now fulfilling that pledge.
As hon. Members have acknowledged, that appraisal will cover each issue that has been subject to a previous commitment by Ministers in this House. The Lord Chancellor recently announced the start of the process. That will be led by officials, but I am keen to listen to interested parties, including hon. Members from across the House. Given the importance of the reforms, it is right that we take time to gather the necessary evidence and views of experts on the impact of the changes.
The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) asked me about the detail of the review. I will write to stakeholders shortly to invite them to participate in a series of expert panels to consider and sift through relevant evidence to inform our review, which will be comprehensive. I want to ensure that we get the review right. Of course, I will not pre-empt or prejudice the outcome of the review—I am sure she expected me to say that—but we will publish our findings by the summer recess. One or two hon. Members asked about that.
We must acknowledge that the financial pressures in which the LASPO reforms were introduced remain with us today. The proportion of departmental spend on legal aid remains broadly the same today as it was prior to 2010. We in the Government have the responsibility to ensure that taxpayers get the best value for money, as well as deal with the challenges and fixing the problems of the legal aid system as and when they arise.
That is why I recently announced our changes to the fee scheme for criminal litigators in the Crown court. Defence solicitors do incredibly valuable work and we want to remunerate them fairly for it, but since 2013-14 there has been a rise of more than £30 million in the annual spend on that work. That is primarily attributable to a costs judge ruling that changed what we were paying for beyond the initial policy intention. We do not accept that that reflects an increase in the work done by defence solicitors and do not think that the rise reflects value for money for taxpayers, so it is right that we acted to address that.
We have targeted the action to the 2% of Crown court cases—the most expensive cases—in which the problem was identified. Effectively, the change involves a shift in policy so that more remuneration is for work that is actually done and not just for the amount of paperwork that is produced in court. It is absolutely right that solicitors are properly paid for work that is reasonably done through the scheme. At the same time, as the quid pro quo for putting the proper reforms in place to ensure that the precious, finite resources go to those with the greatest need, we announced our intention not to pursue the suspended 8.75% fee cut, which would have affected all solicitors. Those two parts of the jigsaw will make sure that we get this right. As I mentioned, this is not just about the money that goes in, but about ensuring that we get the best use out of it.
The hon. Member for Westminster North raised the issue of domestic violence, as did the shadow justice Minister, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero). Domestic violence is absolutely abhorrent; it appals every one of us in this place, I am sure, and it is an absolute priority for this Government. We are completely clear that genuine victims of domestic violence and abuse must have access to the help that they need, including access to legal aid. That is why we retained legal aid for protective injunctions. Legal aid was granted in more than 12,000 protective injunction cases last year. In addition, in cases involving child arrangements and financial matters, funding is available for those who will be disadvantaged by facing their abuser in court.
As the hon. Lady mentioned, we are considering the findings of the further internal review of the evidence requirements. I will make an announcement on that shortly, which I am confident—or at least, I hope—will receive support from all parts of the House. She also asked who would be consulted. That is of the greatest importance and we are working very hard to get this into the right kind of shape, engaging Rights of Women, Resolution, Women’s Aid and the Law Society, so that we can be confident that we are doing everything we can to protect and support genuine victims.
Although it is right to ensure that those who are most in need of legal aid are able to access it, we should acknowledge that the courts are not going to be the right solution in non-domestic violence cases in other areas. I am thinking particularly of some family law disputes, which the hon. Lady mentioned. In many family law cases, the challenge is to see them not go to court. I accept the point about mediation not being as successful as we had hoped, but the answer is to renew and revive the efforts to achieve greater use of alternative dispute resolution in some cases. That is not just because of the financial implications, but because of the trauma of going to court—not for lawyers, but for the many people affected by such cases. I think that needs to be emphasised.
We need to do more to promote alternative dispute resolution, so we have protected legal help in many cases. Last year, we spent £100 million on early legal advice and assistance in civil and family cases. In other areas, we have introduced a telephone helpline to provide legal advice in certain categories of case to allow individuals to access advice quickly and easily. Last year, there were more than 20,000 instances of advice being obtained usefully and helpfully through that system. We have also developed a user-friendly digital tool—as the world becomes more digital, it is right that the justice system strives to catch up—to make it clear to people when legal aid is available to them.
When an alternative route is more appropriate, people should feel empowered to pursue it without having to find a lawyer at great expense, whether that is to themselves or the taxpayer. For instance, in cases involving separating couples, mediation can be less stressful and quicker than going to court, and it is often far cheaper than using a lawyer. Critically, it can help to reduce conflict after separation and the trauma of that, often on both sides, which in some cases litigation will make worse, not better.
The Government are committed to promoting mediation and its benefits, and legal aid remains available for these cases. In the 12 months to June 2017, a full or partial agreement was reached in 62% of publicly funded cases in which both parties engaged in mediation. Of course, as hon. Members have mentioned, citizens can and do represent themselves in court, in some cases irrespective of whether legal aid is available or whether they are privately funded. Litigants in person are not a new feature of our justice system. People involved in litigation are engaged in a variety of disputes and have a wide range of needs and capabilities. We recognise that for some people, representing themselves in court is purely a matter of choice, but for others it can be very challenging and demanding.
Is the Minister aware that there is a piece in this week’s Law Society Gazette about rewriting civil procedure rules to accommodate litigants in person, who may not fully understand court procedures in civil proceedings?
I have not seen that article, but we are constantly looking to ensure that the court system is as amenable as it can be to litigants in person. Contrary to what the shadow Minister suggested, a range of support is available for that; we have ensured that persons without legal representation can get help and support. Since 2015, the Government have invested £5 million of funding to support litigants in person through the litigant in person support strategy, which works with a range of partners across the advice, voluntary and pro bono sectors to provide practical support, whether that is online self-help resources, access to free or affordable legal advice or representation where possible. Personal support units provide trained volunteers who give free and independent assistance to people facing proceedings without legal representation in civil and family courts and tribunals. More personal support units have opened in courts to provide direct support and information to litigants in person, and there are now 20 such centres in 16 cities.
I hesitate to say this, but the Minister is being a bit complacent. All the organisations that he names are wholly laudable, but a PSU, for example, does not give legal advice. Pro bono services are excellent but they cannot compensate for the reduction in legal aid. Mediation is important, but there will be some cases in family law that need to go to a contested hearing. We would like to hear from the Minister that the review will look at the actual effects on the ground, and that where there is a deficit, there will be a genuine attempt to address that. Further, we are asking that he looks at the Bach commission report as part of that process.
The hon. Gentleman has made his intervention in his usual powerful way. I gave the assurance he wanted that the review would be comprehensive and I have looked at the Bach commission report. I would love to know where Opposition Members would make allocations of public funding to pay for the estimated £400 million needed to fund those reforms. On our side, we want to ensure that we can allocate legal aid as best we can, but we have to take the cost into account.
The point I was in the middle of making in relation to litigants in person was one that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) made in his intervention. We have also delivered training to better equip the judiciary to support litigants in person through the court process.
To respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), my Department is taking steps to improve the situation of bereaved families at inquests. The inquest process is distinct; it can be incredibly traumatic for the bereaved. It is important to help them to understand how their loved ones died, which can be particularly hard so soon after the event. My heart goes out to anyone who goes through that—not just the grief but the fact-finding process, with all the legal and bureaucratic procedures of the inquest system, which must be rather daunting and challenging for a layperson. I agree that early legal advice can be helpful in allowing families to understand the process, which is why we have protected it for inquests within the scope of legal aid. Inquests are supposed to be inquisitorial, and most inquest hearings are conducted without the need for publicly funded representation. However, we recognise that legal representation may be necessary in some circumstances, for which funding is available through the exceptional case funding scheme.
Dame Elish Angiolini’s important report on deaths in custody highlighted that there are issues relating to public participation. I reviewed that report and I take it very seriously, which is why we committed to update the Lord Chancellor’s guidance so it is clear that the starting presumption is that legal aid should be awarded for representation of the families at an inquest following the non-natural death or suicide of a person detained in custody. I hope that that goes some way to reassuring hon. Members. We could debate that important work for much longer, but I will wind up shortly.
As well as looking back over the record of LASPO and some of the previous decisions, it is also crucial to look forward and ensure that access to justice, to which legal aid makes a hugely valuable contribution, is maintained and meets the needs of a modern society. We are investing over £1 billion to transform our courts and tribunals to build on our world-renowned justice system so that it is more sensitive to victims, more modern so that it works more efficiently, swifter and more accessible in the ways that I have described. As part of that, we will digitise our services to make them easier for the public to use, whether or not they are supported by a lawyer. It is essential that we continue our work to ensure that legal aid is made available to the most vulnerable, as part of that wider approach to making access to justice and the justice system fit for the 21st century.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East again on securing this debate. I welcome the thoughtful contributions on all sides and the opportunity to set out the Government’s position and our plans to take the justice system forward, not back.
Thank you for your excellent chairing of the debate, Mr Robertson. It has been a great privilege to move the motion today and to call on the excellent support of my Labour colleagues, who offered their expertise, insight and personal experience of having served in the legal profession and dealt with these issues at first hand.
Most notably, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid, dealt with the issue tenaciously, making a series of observations about how it is often the most vulnerable people who are missing out on this opportunity and how early intervention is the key to success. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) made the point that the whole premise of the so-called reform of legal aid is wrong-headed because it drives cost into the system. We have heard that every £1 that is cut in the legal system is costing £6 in real terms down the line.
I was also interested in the points made by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), which is nearly my neighbouring constituency. He observed that although the legal system in Scotland is not suffering from the same pernicious pressures on legal aid, it is damning it with faint praise to say that there are not challenges. I hope the review in Scotland, which is welcome, recognises that the Law Society of Scotland has identified problems and that they ought to be addressed honestly and with an open mind. I hope that will happen and that the resourcing needed to support legal aid is upheld.
I observe the lack of Conservative Members in the debate. I do not know whether that is because they are not prepared to come and defend the system or whether they do not care. I will leave that to other hon. Members to judge. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) made some interesting points, but he also conceded that the cost base premise of reforming legal aid was flawed and that it may well drive cost into the legal system overall, which is unhelpful even by its own standards.
The Minister’s response was also interesting. He asked where the money would come from. Actually, if the system is costing money, surely we should look at it honestly through the review process to see where efficiencies can be made. If the review is to be worth the paper it is written on, I hope the Minister will commit to ensuring that people who have experience of using legal aid are integrated into it and that their views will be part of the process. On the wider efficiency of the court system, we recognise the difference in spending in Scotland per capita. Perhaps there is an opportunity to learn lessons from the efficiency of how the overall courts process works there.
A number of considered observations have been made in the debate and I have learned a lot from taking part in it. I hope we all strive towards an aspiration to remove harm, stress and indignity from society. The legal aid process is a fundamental pillar of achieving that. As a society, I hope we move towards a system in which there is a presumption to give legal aid. There should be a presumption of entitlement to accessing legal aid rather than a presumption that people are not entitled to it; someone should not have to prove their eligibility to the court system.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the provision of legal aid.
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the provision of sanitary products.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am delighted to have secured this debate on an important topic that—let’s face it—remains taboo and is still a bit embarrassing for many people. It is precisely because no one wants to talk about it that I believe it is so critical that we do, so I will start by putting my money where my mouth is and telling the House one of my most embarrassing moments.
I was in the first week of a new school. I was 12. I was feeling very out of place and very lost. I saw a teacher beckoning me from the top of a stairwell. I walked towards her and said, “Yes, Miss? What did I do wrong?” I was convinced something was wrong. She said, “Don’t worry—everything’s fine, but I wanted to let you know that you have a stain of blood on your skirt.” Of course, it was not fine. I looked behind and on my light blue uniform there was indeed such a stain. My face went red, and then white. I remember going to the bathroom and crying, and when I stopped crying I called my mum. She came and we went home; I told the school that I wanted to go home to change. In fact, she had brought me another skirt, but I was just so mortified by how many people might have seen it and not said anything.
For me, that was a one-off and I was better prepared the next time, but for thousands of girls in this country, missing school because they cannot afford sanitary products is a regular occurrence. It is an outrage that in a country as wealthy as Britain we let that happen. Thanks to the double whammy of the stigma attached to both poverty and periods, we simply do not know the scale of the problem.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. Does she share my intense frustration about the fact that when I asked the Secretary of State for Education about period poverty just a few weeks ago, her response was ambivalent at best? She appeared to be in denial about period poverty even existing.
Yes, I share the hon. Lady’s frustration. I hope we will hear something different on this important issue from the Minister.
Food banks are now actively asking for donations of sanitary products. Teachers are dipping into their own pockets to keep supplies of sanitary products in their desks.
As a former teacher, I have heard lots of stories from teachers about keeping a supply of sanitary products in the classroom so that girls do not miss out on education because of poverty. Does the hon. Lady agree that that should not be the responsibility of teachers? The Government should do something. The Secretary of State for Education is also Minister for Women and Equalities.
Speaking as another teacher, I completely agree. On the meagre salaries that teachers are now paid, they should not be asked to fork out themselves for sanitary products.
Many of us first realised that period poverty was such an issue for young women when it came to light that teachers in Leeds had got in touch with a charity called Freedom4Girls that provides sanitary products to women in Kenya and had asked whether it would be willing to give them a supply for girls in their school. They had noticed that girls were missing class at around the same time every month, like clockwork. Given the substitutes, including rolled-up toilet paper or old socks, that girls from low-income families are using, it is no surprise that they choose to stay home. Now, I admit that the rolled-up toilet tissue trick has served me well, but I can go and buy some products or go home. For these girls, it is a regular occurrence. It should not be.
Period poverty affects not just girls, but women. Charities and campaigners tell me that it is rife among asylum seekers, refugees, women in refuges, and indeed any vulnerable women who cannot afford to buy the products they need. As a nation we must do better, and as a society we need to get better at talking about this. Given that 52% of the population menstruate, or have done at some point, is it not ridiculous that it has taken until 2017 for an advert for sanitary products to show red liquid rather than blue? I assure hon. Members that it is never blue. The more we talk about periods and normalise what is a completely natural and healthy function, the easier we will make it for young girls to talk about this.
When I was at school and we were given a very brief talk about periods, boys were sent out of the class. It is important that menstrual health is covered in detail in statutory sex and relationships education, but does the hon. Lady agree that boys need education about periods, too? Many of them will go on to be husbands, fathers, teachers or doctors. Just as women should understand the signs of testicular cancer, men should understand about periods and period poverty.
I completely agree. School is exactly the right time for that education. I have delivered those lectures myself, and although they may be embarrassing for the boys, it is very important that they understand how this works, and that it is completely natural. That is the point.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Period poverty also has an impact on homeless people. Not only do they need to be supplied with sanitary products, which the Lunar Project in York supplies, but they need access to public toilets. Surely that needs to be a Government priority. It is a public health issue.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I visited St Mungo’s last week, and that was raised as an important issue that it needs help with.
Very little research has been done on period poverty in schools in the UK, but what we do know is shocking. In a Plan International UK survey of 1,000 girls, 49% said that they had missed an entire day of school because of their period. Critically, of those, 59% had lied about why, claiming that something else had caused their absence. Meanwhile, 82% of the girls surveyed admitted that they had hidden or concealed their sanitary products, while nearly three quarters said that they felt embarrassed even buying them. Again, I will admit to that: during the 2015 election campaign, I was approached for a chat about politics in Boots, where I had just bought some tampons. I remember standing with them behind my back because I was a bit embarrassed. I would not have done that with toothpaste. That shows how desperately we need to talk more about the issue.
Plan International’s campaign to normalise periods—including with a period emoji—is brilliant, as is all the great work that businesses and charities are doing up and down the country. Boots and others have introduced drop-in donation points. Bodyform has promised to donate 200,000 packs of sanitary products by 2020. There are grassroots campaigns such as the Periodical Diary, which has a website on which girls can talk frankly about their periods; it also goes into schools and delivers workshops. However, we should not leave it to charities and business to pick up the Government’s slack. How can it be okay for a mother to be forced to choose between food and sanitary products? That is exactly the choice that far too many women in this country face.
I was disappointed that the Chancellor did not make funding available in last week’s Budget to ensure that schools could stock sanitary products for those who need them. Let us focus on that small issue. Such a small, simple step would restore dignity, save embarrassment and reduce the number of girls who are missing valuable days of teaching and learning.
It is not too late. The Minister could offer something to these desperate women. I hope that she and others are feeling the political pressure mount. Last year, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) tabled amendments to the Finance Bill that were rejected by the Government—shamefully, I might add. I thank and commend her for her excellent work on the issue. In March, the Education Secretary—who is also Minister for Women and Equalities, as we have already been reminded—said in answer to the then Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, Greg Mulholland, that she would look at the issue of period poverty “carefully”. I look forward to an update from the Minister on where that assessment is, and when the Government plan to publish their work.
I also ask the Minister: did this issue even get a mention in the discussions with the Treasury over the last weeks and months? I sincerely hope that we will not be spun the line that the reallocation of money from VAT on sanitary products to women’s charities is enough, because it is not.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. Does she share my concern that £250,000 of the tampon tax fund went to a pro-life charity called Life, which confirmed to me on the radio that if a woman it was helping with housing then decided to have a termination, or indeed had a miscarriage, it would withdraw its services? It is absolutely obscene that money that women pay is going to a charity or organisation that does not provide choice.
That is indeed shocking. This money should be available to all women, no matter their choices, especially if those choices are legal in this country.
We estimate that the small measure of providing sanitary products in schools would cost in the region of £5 million, which is a drop in the ocean compared to the £1 billion found for the Democratic Unionist party. I mention that simply to point out that when an issue is important enough, somehow money seems to be found.
Finally, I also plead that responsibility for this issue not be passed on to schools. Yes, schools have budgets, but those budgets are ever squeezed, and schools still need to find a further £1.7 billion, according to the National Audit Office. I ask the Minister not to pass the buck today on this issue, and to find the small amount of new money that is needed to fund these very important initiatives. Period poverty is a hidden plight, and it is time that it was taken seriously by all. I thank all Members in advance for their contributions, and of course I thank the Minister, who I have much respect for, for listening intently to the arguments put forward in the short time that we have.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Sharma; I do not think that we have done so before.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing this debate. She is absolutely right that this topic remains taboo. I think we can go back 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 years to find some of the origins of the taboo. Even today, some of the cultural issues around women and menstruation are still very strong and not what we would want to see, certainly in this country.
I thank the hon. Lady for her honesty in the story that she told. I was once a young girl at school, and the situation she described would have filled me with horror; I would also have been in the lavatories weeping. I will deal with the issue of poverty and sanitary products in a minute, but while it is a shame that we have not made as much progress as all that, I think back to when I was first elected in 2005, when hon. Members would have been a bit aghast at us even mentioning the word “period” or “menstruation”, so maybe we have made some progress. It is good to see two men in the Chamber—my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), and for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall)—because this is not just a women’s issue. It is also about men.
Period poverty has been the subject of quite a lot of media and parliamentary attention in recent months; I know that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) put a question on it to the Minister for Women and Equalities. In general terms, we are clear that no person should be held back by their gender or background, and if someone cannot attend school on the days that they are having a period, it is much harder for them to reach their potential. They are missing out on valuable school time.
On school absences, the evidence is quite clear. We have all seen that every day of school missed can alter a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSE results and have a lasting effect on their life chances. It is important to say that in this context. That is why we have made it a priority to reduce school absence. There has been some success, with overall yearly absence rates decreasing from 6.5% of possible sessions missed in 2006-07 to 4.6% in 2015-16, which is quite a marked drop. In the context of this debate, it is interesting and perhaps surprising to note that in 2015-16, the absence rates for boys and girls were almost identical, with boys missing, on average, 4.6% of possible sessions and girls missing 4.5%.
The Minister agrees that this is a taboo subject—she is absolutely right—but it seems as if the Government have prevented us from talking about it during the passage of the Finance Bill by refusing to table the normal motions. Can she assure us that the Government will allow us to address this issue directly in the House, because we have been prevented from doing so thus far?
With the greatest respect, I do not know this, because I have not looked into it, but I would imagine that that was not to do with the subject. I have no doubt that the Government were not unhappy to discuss periods; we are having this debate today, so there is no question of that. I have no doubt that there are other reasons for what she describes. I am sure that if the hon. Lady made representations to the Backbench Business Committee, it would accept a proposal for a debate on this subject. It is also open to her party to put this forward as the subject of an Opposition day debate—there is an Opposition day debate today.
There is no question of anybody—certainly not me, as Minister for Women— suppressing any debate about periods; the more we talk about these issues, the more we lessen the taboo. If we cannot talk about them here, how can we expect children to talk about them in school?
We need to look into those absence rates further. Also, not being able to afford sanitary protection does not necessarily mean being absent from school; the two do not necessarily correlate. In fact, if the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon is suggesting that that is the reason why many girls are missing school, it is of note that the girls’ absence rate is still lower than that for boys. As I say, we need to do a lot of research on this, and I know that the Minister for Women and Equalities is very keen for that to take place. It will be difficult to dig down into the detail, but we will find out more information by doing so.
The hon. Lady talked about alternatives to sanitary towels and tampons. I looked into this. I was at a meeting with young people who raised some of the issues that she has raised. Actually, I think that one of the Labour Members present was there. We discussed school lavatories being locked during lessons. It seemed odd to me that they should be locked at that time, but it to do with the fact that often it is in the lavatories that a lot of sexual abuse, bullying and harassment takes place. Although there is no policy on that—schools are open to do what they want, and they will open the toilets during breaks, when there can be a teacher on duty—it is a sorry state of affairs that we have got to in this country when bullying, harassment and abuse are so rife that we cannot do what we should be able to do, which is leave the lavatories open so that young girls can be excused from class to change their sanitary protection, or for whatever reason.
There is an underlying problem there, which I know the Minister for School Standards is looking at: making sure that we reduce the amount of sexual abuse and bullying that takes place in lavatories. It has always taken place there; it did when I was at school. The boys’ lavatories in particular were a place where boys’ heads were shoved down the lavatory at regular and frequent intervals, and the girls’ loos were a place where a lot of bullying took place. That has got worse, not better, which is worrying, if we consider all the guidance that has been produced for schools and the fact that we should be a more progressive and open-minded society. I am probably a great deal older than many other Members in the Chamber today, and it feels as though the situation has got worse; it feels regressive, including with respect to taboo.
Interestingly, I saw online a story about Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, that showed just how ignorant people are. She was asked if 100 tampons was the right number for a one-week mission. It is quite extraordinary that people in NASA had no idea—no more than a lot of other people—about this issue.
Although this is a very serious subject, I will raise a smile and share an event with Members. It is to do with the taboo and the lack of awareness, particularly among males. As a father, I was encouraging my oldest daughter to go to her swimming club one night. We had a great exchange of views, but how embarrassed was I when I found out the reason why she was not going? I felt so small, and I was an adult. Both the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and the Minister are absolutely right about the taboo, and that the subject is one that a parent of a 10 or 11-year-old girl has to understand; indeed, I am the father of two girls and we have had a number of these experiences. Promoting awareness and talking about this is helpful, although that does not excuse the poverty aspect and the need to provide young girls with the products that we are discussing. That is a male contribution, to balance the conversation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I particularly commend him on being here, because it shows that we are all prepared to talk about the issue.
Sex and relationships education and religious education definitely came up as issues. We need to do a great deal more to educate young people about the alternatives. Mooncups are one option; I should think that a lot of people do not know about them. There are alternatives.
I am having a CupAware party here in Parliament in January. I agree that they are a fantastic sustainable solution, although they are not for everyone. Will the Minister join me at that CupAware party? Will she also join us at the period poverty march in Westminster on 20 December? Parliament is sitting that day, and I am speaking at that event. I hope the Minister will come along and listen to people who have been affected.
I know it is against the rules of the Chamber, but please indulge me, Mr Sharma; I am going to place a Mooncup on the desk. They were invented after I stopped having periods, but I should be able to talk—
Order. It may be best if the Minister puts the item away.
Sorry, Mr Sharma. I will put it back in my handbag. I do not go on marches as a point of principle, but I will be interested in the feedback of the hon. Member for Dewsbury from that event. I do not feel under political pressure, because although we may argue about welfare benefits and poverty—we obviously do—and the route out of those things, we do not disagree on periods and sex education. It should be noted that the Department for Education does not issue specific guidance to schools on the provision of sanitary protection, but it is without doubt the case, and always has been the case, that the school office will have supplies for children who are caught short.
Will the Minister give way?
If I give way now, I will not have time to make all my points. I ask the hon. Lady to bear with me for a minute.
Members are aware of the long-running campaign for sanitary products to be exempt from VAT and the Government’s commitment to zero-rate such products once our leaving the EU offers us the discretion to do so. There are good and bad sides to Brexit, and that is perhaps one of the good sides. In anticipation of that development, we set up the £15-million tampon tax fund, which is equivalent to the amount of VAT paid on sanitary products each year. The hon. Member for Dewsbury raised an issue about one of the organisations, but I was not involved in that. The majority of funding has been grants to frontline charities that aim to improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls. Those charities include health, wellbeing and education initiatives and support services for vulnerable women. I understand that some of the money has gone to women’s refuges. As a former health professional, I can say how superb some of those organisations’ work is. While the tampon tax fund is not currently open for applications, we can look forward to updates on that in the near future.
More generally, I have to talk a bit about poverty. I have talked about periods, and poverty is the other side of the issue. We know that children do worse in households where no one is in work. Children in such households are five times more likely to be in poverty than those in households where all adults work. They are also almost twice as likely to fail at all stages of their education than children in working families. The number of households where no one is working is just short of being 1 million lower than it was in 2010, which means that there are 608,000 fewer children in such households than seven years ago.
Will the Minister give way?
I have seven minutes left, so I will not at the moment. I will give way if I have a bit of time at the end.
We have increased the national living wage, which means that a full-time worker is now £1,400 a year better off. We have increased the personal allowance again, meaning that a basic rate taxpayer is now £1,000 better off than they would have been in 2010. We have doubled the childcare entitlement for working parents of three and four-year-olds in England from 15 to 30 hours, introduced tax-free childcare and supported the right to request flexible working, which enables parents to arrange care in a way that works for them. We have a returner programme going on. It is easy to dismiss all that in the arguments that we want to have across the House on benefits, but it is important to recognise that those measures will make a difference to those families.
On the point of money, this is a women-only issue, pretty much by definition; does the Minister not agree that we need new money to tackle the problem? It is all very well us all agreeing with each other, but without the new money, we are not going to get where we need to go.
What we need is credible and robust evidence about the issue. There are a number of other issues, such as young men in school who possibly have to be clean shaven. There is an issue about razors for boys, which are very expensive. They are probably the item in the supermarket that is more frequently shoplifted than anything else. As a former public health Minister, I know that toothpaste is an issue. People with low incomes are perhaps not spending money on toothpaste when they should. There is a clear correlation between that and dental caries, given the fluoride in toothpaste. There are a number of issues. What things are families doing without because they feel that their finances are too tight for them to afford them? Sanitary products are separate, inasmuch as they are a sensitive issue that can increase the stigma that young women face about their menstrual cycle and their reproductive system. I accept that there are additional issues there, but sanitary products are not the only issue.
It is important to find out about school absences and how many children are not buying sanitary protection because they feel too poor to do so. Only then can we think about possible solutions. I thank Members for attending. I am sure that this will not be the last time that we discuss periods. SRE and RE are critical. What matters to me is that we have lessons that include boys and girls, because it is important for boys to understand. It is important to debunk some of the myths that some makers of sanitary products exploit. Saying that sanitary products are meant to keep someone odour-free is complete nonsense. There is no specific odour associated with menstrual blood; it is not like anything else.
There is a great deal more that we should do. Young boys need to hear about menstruation in the same way that young girls do, but I also feel strongly that young girls need an opportunity to have structured discussions on their own, without boys present, for the simple reason that someone going through puberty might feel very uncomfortable discussing things in front of people of a different gender.
I thank you again, Mr Sharma, for your excellent chairmanship, and for bearing with me when I produced an item in the Chamber. I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon for securing this debate and everyone for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
Dark Sky Status (Cornwall)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Cornwall’s dark skies status.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
As many hon. Members know, Cornwall is a beautiful place. Just saying “Cornwall” brings up pictures of a fantastic rugged coastline, the beauty of the moors, and of course our mining history, which made Cornwall a world heritage site—but also beautiful are Cornwall’s skies at night. I was just six years old when President Kennedy said, in an inspiring speech:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”.
When I was about seven, my cousin Dawn used to take me out into the garden and point out the different stars to me. She pointed out the great bear, the little bear and the plough, and I found it fascinating. I was just a teenager when mankind landed on the moon, and I remember Neil Armstrong taking his first steps when I was at school. I remember the roads being blocked in Cornwall as it hosted viewers of a solar eclipse in 1999—my young son became very excited about it. People looked skywards, with the correct eye protection of course, to see our skies go dark in the morning.
Those memories were brought back to me when I met with Ken and Muriel Bennett from the fantastic Caradon observatory on Bodmin moor. Their enthusiasm about the sky at night is fantastic and infectious. I would like to read a quick endorsement from space pilot Rick Hauck, who just happens to be the uncle of one of my local councillors in South East Cornwall. He said:
“Congratulations to those who have successfully obtained certification of International Dark Sky status for Bodmin Moor. Having observed the night sky from the space shuttle, well above sky pollution suffered by a large percentage of inhabited earth, I can assure the stargazers in the Moor and particularly those fortunate enough to have access to the Caradon Observatory that they will have a unique view of the night sky, breathtaking in its grandeur.”
Caradon observatory is an amateur-run facility near Upton Cross in my constituency. The observatory has been used as a venue for a number of presentations and open days for students and local groups. The facility inspires the next generation to reach for the stars. That is why I was thrilled when Bodmin moor was formally recognised by the International Dark-Sky Association as the first dark sky park in an area of outstanding natural beauty. In total, it covers an area of 80 square miles, with a buffer zone of about two miles. The bid was made by the Caradon observatory, with the assistance of Cornwall Council. I would like to put on record my thanks to the council for all the work that it carried out to achieve that status.
The exceptional quality of the night sky, commitments to avoid light pollution and the provision of educational outreach were the reasons the award was given. Local residents and businesses are also playing their part. Guidance is being offered in the designated area to help them to choose any lighting, so that the skies can be even better in future. They are also being asked to consider whether they need lighting, and to think twice before putting lighting up.
It is not just people in the area who will enjoy the dark skies. For millions of years, plant and animal life has relied on the daily rhythm of light and dark—it is literally written into our DNA—but humans have recently disrupted that, and it can cause problems with reproduction, nourishment, sleep and protection from predators. From sea birds that are navigating to amphibians that produce their mating calls only when it is dark, many parts of the ecosystem are being affected by light. One study estimated that millions of baby sea turtles die in Florida alone as they make their way towards the city lights at night instead of the bright horizon over the ocean. It is therefore hoped that the abundant wildlife on Bodmin moor will also benefit from the darker skies.
Ken and Muriel Bennett recently wrote to me saying:
“We at the Observatory have always believed that the younger the children that can be educated to look upwards the more impact it can have, even in some cases pointing them towards the sciences and suchlike. Children generally are infatuated with subjects such as dinosaurs and space travel (Star Wars for instance) and this interest starts at extremely early ages. To be able to promote astronomy as a community, or indeed as a county, would act as a further inspiration to them and hopefully steer them towards academia. We are going to need more and more scientists, engineers etc to fill increasingly technical and development positions and perhaps the earliest and best way forward is to inspire the young.”
“Together with Cornwall council we have provided the tools to use at no costs to businesses to initially rack up the tourism in Cornwall all the year around. This will create wealth for spin off businesses, and as we become more and more known as a centre for astronomy and science, we would hope to encourage technical and engineering companies to look at starting up or relocating in our wonderful part of the country. We could produce a young labour force second to none.”
I want to see much more made of the dark sky status. I want to help Ken and Muriel with their inspirational project.
I thank the Campaign to Protect Rural England for the interest it has shown in dark skies. In its mapping, it found that around only a fifth of England is free of light pollution. It recommends that the Government ensure that local authorities are implementing Government policy to control light pollution, as set out in the national planning policy framework and associated guidance. In the absence of resources for the Departments for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Communities and Local Government to pursue rigorous monitoring, it calls on Ministers to issue a clear statement on how local authorities should proactively take action to control light pollution and protect dark skies in their areas.
I back Ken and Muriel in their call. In particular, I ask the Government what additional information they can make available for businesses and people to help with their lighting. I also ask what grants are available if dark sky lighting is more expensive than other alternatives —especially for people who live in designated dark sky areas, such as Bodmin moor in my constituency.
I would also be grateful if the Minister outlined what help the Government could offer Ken and Muriel to help them with their project. The equipment they need to look up into space is not cheap. I would like to think that we could help with that, and with the facilities at the site, so that children can make the very best of their visit, inspiring them to go further and take up science.
Just last week in the Budget, the Chancellor made much of his welcome boost and long-term support for science and innovation. He mentioned skills and jobs for the new economy. It is hoped that Cornwall will deliver the UK’s first space port in 2020. Its website boasts that Cornwall Airport Newquay and Goonhilly Earth Station are well placed to play a critical role in developing the UK’s space industry with the creation of a space port. Together, they provide a complete end-to-end UK launch capability to support all aspects of launch, including sub-orbital vehicles and systems and the ability to put satellites into Earth orbit. We need observatories such as the one at Caradon to inspire youngsters into our space industry. This is clearly a new economy, and we need to expand the facilities to ensure we have the workforce we need to make the UK a world leader in this field.
What Government help is available to encourage people to visit dark sky status areas? Cornwall is reliant on tourism, and our skies are our greatest asset. What assistance is there to promote our wonderful night sky to people as another reason to come to Cornwall and enjoy our wonderful hospitality?
Like many other people in London, when I am here I look up but see very little. I encourage everyone to visit my beautiful constituency and to look up at night. I promise that the view is very different. Let us make a real push to inspire people into the new economy. Let us take Bodmin moor’s dark skies—a real asset—and make people look up and think, “Where next?”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing this debate and on giving us the opportunity to talk about Cornwall. I extend the invitation much further than east Cornwall, right down to west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which are darker still in lots of ways.
Cornwall is already one of the darkest areas in England. It is well documented that becoming a dark skies reserve has positive effects, including energy reduction and a boost to tourism. It also improves wellbeing—first, for mankind, as it is proven that people sleep better under dark skies, and secondly, for migrating birds, nocturnal animals and mammals. My constituency, like much of Cornwall, has a track record of caring for the environment and wildlife. An example we are proud of is the seabird recovery project on Scilly, where we have supported and increased the population of the Manx shearwater, of which I am a species champion, and other seabirds by getting rid of rats and litter. That is one example of our commitment to create the best possible environment for wildlife and nature.
What interests me most about the dark skies status proposal is the west Cornwall and Isles of Scilly initiative, which will create a protected area from Bishop’s rock, 45 km of the south-western tip of Cornwall, right through to the Hayle river, covering the Isles of Scilly and most of what we know as west Penwith. The Lizard peninsular is also in my constituency but is not included in the current proposal for dark skies reserve status, for understandable reasons—there are a couple of rather large towns between Lizard and west Penwith. However, I intend to do what I can to explore that ambition for the good people of the Lizard peninsular.
I am grateful for this debate, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We already live in an unspoiled dark skies area down in the far south-west; we just do not have official recognition.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing this debate. I want to give an example of something that has happened elsewhere that is similar to what she is trying to achieve. When I saw that this issue was in Westminster Hall for debate, right away I thought of the Wild Atlantic Way, which is something we have done in Northern Ireland with Tourism Ireland. We have promoted the tourism qualities while preserving the rocks, the coastline, the birds and everything else. We have sold it across the world and in the USA. A large number of visitors come not just to the Wild Atlantic Way but to the whole of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is a marvellous thing. If she gets the status, she will get the visitors.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If he is offering an opportunity to take some of those American tourists from Ireland to west Cornwall, I would be absolutely delighted.
We live in an unspoiled dark area, so achieving the status would not necessarily require significant changes to light pollution levels today. The many people who are working hard to achieve the dark skies reserve, including my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall and others in west Cornwall, are seeking to preserve and protect the current situation for future generations, but there are plans to build 19,000 new homes in Cornwall and carry out a number of road and other infrastructure projects. That is why it is so important that we secure dark skies status—it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
In February, I supported the efforts to achieve dark skies status with a constituency-wide survey. Over 95% of those who responded supported the ambition of the dark skies initiative and the work that the working group is doing, as does the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Exeter University, which delivers education in parts of Cornwall, the National Trust, Penwith Landscape Partnership, the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, the Council of the Isles of Scilly, the Duchy of Cornwall, Cornwall Council and the diocese of Truro. A couple of names have been mentioned. I would like to mention Kevin Hughes, a constituent of mine, who been a long-time avid campaigner to deliver dark skies designation in west Cornwall and Scilly. Together, we are united to keep Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly special.
When we secure dark skies reserve status, we will further improve our offer to tourists and our care for the environment and wildlife habitats, and we will lead the way in striking the balance and finding the harmony needed not by resisting house building but by ensuring that the built environment complements the largely unspoiled beauty of the county of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. That is what exercises the minds and energies of large numbers of Cornish residents.
When preparing for this debate, I was sent some fantastic images of the skies above Cornwall at night. It is regrettable that I cannot share them in the Chamber, but hon. Members can view them, along with the 9,805 people who have already done so, on the Dark Skies for West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Facebook page.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing it. It is a debate in which we can enjoy each other’s company for an hour. We are probably all going to say broadly similar things.
The hon. Lady talked about going out stargazing in her childhood, and the wonder and awe that that produced in her. It is something I thoroughly enjoy doing with my two girls. When I take them only a few miles outwith the city of Glasgow—I will say a bit more about Glasgow in a minute or two—vistas suddenly appear in front of us that are not visible in the city. It is great for them to start picking out the different constellations and to see familiar things. For example, Orion is visible in the city, but there is far more detail when we go out of the city.
The hon. Lady talked about the 1999 eclipse in Cornwall. I travelled to Cornwall especially for it. My son was just a toddler at the time, and we camped in a muddy field somewhere in Cornwall. We could not get near the beaches the next morning—it was too busy—so we stayed in rural Cornwall and, because of cloud cover, saw nothing. We enjoyed our experience very much.
In 2015, there was an eclipse in the UK; I am not talking about the SNP’s general election victory, but a partial eclipse that was visible. Shortly before I was elected, I was a physics teacher. We took the students outside and they were able to watch the eclipse. There is something about space and the universe—when we can see things working other than just the normal that we are used to—that really inspires our young people. During my time as a teacher, I often had young people out doing Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, not in Cornwall but usually in the highlands of Scotland, and usually in the rain and the mud, but very occasionally in beautifully spectacular countryside, where the sun would set and the stars appear.
Many of those Glaswegian school children had never been outside the city. It was quite incredible for them suddenly to see the stars appearing. We said to them, “There’s Orion. We’re used to seeing Orion, but have you ever seen the redness of Betelgeuse that you can now see? Have you ever counted the number of stars on Orion’s sword?” Things like that made it far more alive for them.
We must not underestimate the impact that these experiences have on young people, so it is wonderful to hear that Bodmin moor has been designated an international dark sky landscape. I really hope that the wider community in Cornwall and the community of Bodmin moor can take full advantage of the educational experiences that that offers the young people there.
In Scotland, we have three designated dark sky areas—Moffat, Galloway and Coll—but one could argue that most of Scotland is a dark sky area, because just a short distance from the major cities the stars really are spectacular. I believe that the designation is to do with how many stars can be seen and light levels; I have not fully read up on how somewhere can be designated a dark sky area, I must admit. I know when I am somewhere dark when I can see the Milky Way, which is often invisible to us. The problem in Scotland can be the cloud cover, which might be a problem in Cornwall—I think they suffer a bit from clouds, too. We do not always get the beautifully clear skies that we need to see things.
There are lots of advantages to being designated as having dark sky status, one of which is tourism, which has been mentioned. Cornwall already has a fairly vibrant tourist industry, but there are other things that we can do not just in Cornwall but across the UK to help to generate the tourist economy. One relates to VAT on tourism. I am glad that the Minister is in her place and I hope that she is listening. Reducing VAT would be a shot in the arm to many small businesses across tourist areas: bed and breakfasts, restaurants, guesthouses, visitor centres, shops and more. What a difference it would make if that could be considered.
The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) talked about biodiversity, the improvement in wildlife that he has seen in his area and the different schemes that have been used. Protection for the environment is important. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the wild Atlantic way, which I had not heard about but I have just googled, so I know the details, and I will be sure to read up on it for my next visit to Ireland.
Light pollution is something that we need to think about seriously, both in rural areas where it affects the natural environment and in cities. I said that I would talk a little more about cities. Recently, Glasgow underwent a programme of changing from orange sodium lights, which pretty much sent out light in all directions, to far more directed LED lights, which shine down but not up. That irradiance is quite important—not so much in the city, although I have certainly noticed a difference in the number of stars that are visible now. The difference can be seen out of the city or town areas, because there is not the same light pollution a few miles out of town as we are used to in it. As a child, I knew that I was approaching Glasgow when I was 30 or 40 miles away when I saw the infamous sodium glow of the city. The LEDs do not produce quite as much glow, so they are quite important. In the city, we can now see far more constellations. It is great that my two daughters, who are only eight and 10, can now point out far more detail in constellations they see from the back garden and pick out constellations that they could identify previously only when they were in rural areas.
I want to come back to something that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall said: the importance of inspiring and encouraging young people to study these subjects. I am a physicist by profession, although my background is in photonics, not astronomy. The space industry is at a point where interest in it is ready to explode, and we need to make sure that we have the young people there to take advantage of that.
The hon. Lady mentioned the space industry and I know that she is a great advocate for it, but Glasgow is now the satellite centre of Europe. Only San Francisco produces more satellites worldwide. We have three big companies: Clyde Space, Alba Orbital and Spire Global all in the centre of Glasgow. We also have Prestwick airport—not in a dark sky area, but there are some fairly dark areas between there and Glasgow. Prestwick airport is in partnership with Houston—for those who know Scotland, that is not Houston, Renfrewshire, but Houston, Texas—and it is set to become a space port. There are companies ready to take full advantage, but they need these young people to be inspired and to study physics, engineering and astronomy. The young people also need to have some sort of catalyst to make them do that. Dark sky areas can only help.
I thank the hon. Member for South East Cornwall once again for bringing this debate to the House and congratulate Bodmin moor on its dark sky status, which is not as easy to say as it seems. I wish Cornwall all the very best of success in inspiring the young people of that area and hopefully areas further afield. All the best of success in the future, and perhaps the next time I visit Cornwall it will not be so cloudy.
I call Dr Drew.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma—
Order. Normal practice is that Members indicate that they wish to speak, which you did not do, Mr Grant, and that is why I called the Opposition spokesperson. However, there is time for you to make a brief contribution.
I apologise, Mr Sharma; I am relatively new and still learning. I will be brief. Thank you for your understanding.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) for initiating this debate. There was a mention of somewhere being “darker still” Not only do we have whisky stills in Scotland, but we are darker still, too, so we have some things in common. Cornwall had tin mines and Cornish pasties; Scotland had coalmines and Scotch pies. I am going to talk about Dalmellington in the Doon valley, near Galloway forest dark sky park, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned. For 100 years, the Doon valley produced from deep and open-cast mines the coal that kept the nation’s lights on, but it has moved on. Instead of keeping the lights on, it keeps the lights off, because it is a designated dark skies area.
I commend Ken and Muriel Bennett for the good work they have done on Bodmin moor. I extend that compliment to Mark Gibson from the Doon valley, who purchased Craigengillan estate. He had a vision for the area, which is hurting from the loss of the collieries and industry. In 2012, he opened the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in Dalmellington. It is wonderful. It cost £700,000, which came from various funding streams. It aims to build on the park’s status and offers visitors a chance to observe the northern lights, the Milky Way, planets, comets and shooting stars—of which I am not one. As I say, the observatory was the brainchild of estate owner Mark Gibson, who is to be commended along with the many others who made it happen. The observatory celebrated its fifth birthday in October with the opening of a new planetarium and the launch of the new dark sky tartan. It is a tourist hub that is breathing life into the Doon valley.
The observatory inspires young people—several colleagues mentioned the importance of that. Amateur astronomers, schools, colleges and universities go along. Viewing is not restricted to night time—that is the ideal time, obviously—because the observatory has links with others elsewhere in the world. I hope that dark skies status brings similar revival and success to Bodmin and the rest of Cornwall. The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory is Scotland’s wee magic corner in the Doon valley. It is wonderful. Come along and see us.
May I say again what a pleasure it is to serve under your excellent chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and how fair of you it was to call the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant)?
I am delighted to take part in this debate. I welcome the way the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) led it, and I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on his contribution. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made an intervention, is no longer in his place, but I know that will not count against him. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), too, for her contribution on behalf of the SNP.
I do not intend to delay Members long, but I will make some remarks that I hope will be helpful. This debate has been a learning experience for me. I usually get people moaning when their lights go off and asking me to ensure that they are put back on, but it is valuable for people to have the opportunity to look at the dark sky. I thought that we might turn off the lights in the Chamber and have the debate in the dark, but that might have challenged a few of us who are not capable of eating enough carrots to read our notes in the dark.
This is a serious debate and, as I say, I have taken it as a learning experience. I did not realise that 65 places in the United Kingdom are classified as dark skies places. That is interesting, because it is difficult to become so classified. I am pleased that, if I were going to be in Cornwall on Saturday, I would be able to go to Jamaica Inn, which I have visited previously. For the princely sum of £15, I could get a meal and look at the skies both before and after it. As a vegetarian, I have to say that I hope it puts on vegetarian options as well as what seemed to be a carvery, otherwise it will not be able to attract me there again. It is important that we celebrate the night sky and teach our children about astronomy and the wonder of the sky, which some of us take far too readily for granted.
This is clearly a consensual debate—we would all like to share in such experiences—but I have some questions for the Minister, just to keep her on her toes. First, do we intend to increase the number of applications to be a dark sky place? As I said, getting accepted is quite a laborious process—the application form is some 100 pages long—so perhaps we can help places that would otherwise fall by the wayside to do that.
Secondly, I am told that Plymouth is in the process of installing LED street lights, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North West mentioned. Not only is that great for the environment, but it will save the city about £1 million—now there is a reason why it should be done. What is the Government’s programme in that respect? I know that is a local authority responsibility, but if they are serious about this, the Government could take a lead and encourage local authorities that are thinking of installing LED lights—it is all about them pointing down rather than out and up—to do so. That would be a good progressive policy for any Government. How is the Minister helping?
Thirdly, how are we working with different organisations? I declare an interest as a long-standing member of the CPRE. It is good that it has issued awards for dark sky initiatives. It would be interesting to know how the Government links into those awards and works with such organisations.
Fourthly, it is relevant for us to look at the idea of dark sky parks and it is interesting that Cornwall is leading the way in that regard, but I am not sure that I fully understand them, so perhaps the Government will provide some education. Those parks are crucial in encouraging people to come into the countryside not just for day visits—for walks, cycle rides and so on—but to experience a different lifestyle in the evening. It would help to have clarity about what a dark sky park is.
Last but not least, will the Minister say something about how we deal with artificial light? As I say, I always get people coming to me who are worried about the lights being turned off at night. They feel somewhat threatened because of crime and because they have got used to having street lights. It would be interesting, because I had not really understood this, to hear about whether we can declare light a statutory nuisance where it is oppressive and affects people’s ability to get to sleep at night. Most councils now turn lights off at night to stop energy being wasted. Can we do that earlier and save more money? Can light be declared a statutory nuisance? From reading the Library briefing, it seems that doing so is quite a complicated process.
I again congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall. This is an interesting topic that catches the imagination of people of all ages, and we may all be able to do a bit more about it in our areas. I represent Stroud, which includes part of the Cotswolds, and I will certainly consider whether we ought to look at dark sky status to encourage people to look at the night sky. I look forward to hearing how the Minister answers all those questions.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing this important debate, which has been well attended by people who want to put forward the benefits of the dark sky.
I am sure we all agree that a truly clear, star-filled night sky is one of the greatest spectacles of nature. In an area of low light pollution, it is possible to see as many as 2,000 stars on a clear night, but in our brightly lit modern world many people seldom get the opportunity to experience that. Only last week, a new study was published showing that between 2012 and 2016, the planet’s artificially lit outdoor area grew by more than 2% per year.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) talked about her children and her experiences growing up. I have to admit, growing up in Liverpool, pink skies were a huge feature of the urban glow as the light was partially reflected. Dark nights seemed to be a rarity, and we used to find out about the stars by going to the planetarium. Therefore, when I moved to a village with no street lights at all—I now live in a market town where the council turns off street lights at midnight—it was a joy to behold. Ken and Muriel Bennett, the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, are right to point out that just looking upwards can spark such an interest in science; indeed, it can inspire a generation. I understand why my hon. Friend wants to support them.
I welcome the initiative undertaken in Cornwall in seeking the designation of Bodmin moor as an international dark sky site. I am delighted that Cornwall is leading by example in this regard, and I recognise the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) in trying to secure further designations in the county. As to this particular reserve, I warmly welcome the work that Cornwall Council, Caradon observatory and the Cornwall Nature Partnership have carried out in partnership with Natural England to develop their environmental growth strategy. This is a positive example of long-term thinking, setting out a vision of a sustainable future for the county right through to 2065.
Following the launch last year, I understand that a wide range of businesses, individuals and organisations have pledged specific contributions towards achieving environmental-based growth in Cornwall. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall described, that will reconnect people with the wonder of dark skies, as well as offering a range of benefits to local communities.
The Government have been active for some time in promoting dark skies within national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. For example, we supported the successful application for dark sky status by Exmoor national park, which, in 2011, became the first international dark sky reserve to be designated in Europe. The Government also supported the South Downs national park, which was designated last year. Indeed, Natural England gave its support to Cornwall Council’s successful application to designate Bodmin moor as an international dark sky landscape, the benefits of which we have heard so much about.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to an example from the other end of the country, where the Northumberland international dark sky park has become the largest in Europe. That has had a hugely positive impact on the local economy, with about 20,000 visitors making the journey to Kielder observatory each year. That in turn has helped the park to become a year-round destination, enabling businesses to remain open and viable throughout the winter months. It has also helped to enhance local residents’ quality of life and to inspire and educate people about astronomy and the natural world. That clearly demonstrates the range of benefits—social, environmental and economic—that can flow from such an initiative. I am also aware that, just last month, Exmoor had a week of celebration that boosted its season and is in line with the Government’s strategy on productivity in parks and AONBs.
In answer to the hon. Member for Glasgow North West, VAT is a matter for the Treasury. She will recognise that in terms of tourism, but I know that those representations are made regularly. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) praised the Scottish dark sky observatory. He is right to do so; it is something of which he should be proud.
Light pollution is an issue that can challenge rural areas and blight urban areas. While I fully accept that artificial light brings valuable benefits to society in safety and in facilitating a thriving night time economy—we think of the spectacular Blackpool illuminations—if used incorrectly or carelessly it can contribute to a range of problems. It can be a source of annoyance to people, be harmful to wildlife and waste energy, as well as prevent enjoyment of the night sky.
That is why we have taken action to ensure that light pollution is addressed through the planning system. The national planning policy framework makes it clear that planning policies and decisions should limit the impact of light pollution on local amenity, dark landscapes and nature conservation. It is supported by guidance that emphasises the importance of getting the right light in the right place at the right time and helps local planners and developers to design in ways of avoiding glare and intrusion.
As the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) said, artificial light can be classified as a potential statutory nuisance. That means that local authorities have a duty to investigate complaints about light emitted from premises that could constitute a nuisance or be harmful to health, and they have powers to take action when there is a problem. I have an anecdote: I admit that this did not affect me directly, but at a golf club in one of my constituencies, what the lighting was doing was so poor that I genuinely thought the place was on fire. This is a challenge in which working with businesses matters, and I want to encourage councils to do that. There are grants available to help people get LED lighting, and the Energy Saving Trust is probably is the best gateway for that.
I have to alert the House that the jury is still slightly out on the benefits of LED versus sodium, specifically in regard to light pollution. Undoubtedly, LED lights are better in terms of saving energy, but they must be directed downwards in a particular way. Otherwise, there is an issue about the photobiological effects of LED lighting with high blue light components: there is an increase in light pollution, the greater the blue light content of the light source. That has been investigated, and that is why the Government have worked with Highways England and, I think, the CPRE, the Commission for Dark Skies and others to produce guidance on how best to place this in the future.
As we all know, street lighting is an important issue and needs to be managed carefully to strike the right balance between preserving road safety and avoiding light pollution. The Department for Transport is therefore encouraging local authorities to replace their street lighting with modern lighting that reduces the amount of glare emitted. Highways England, which manages our motorways and major roads, is also working actively to minimise light pollution. As I say, it is working with the Commission for Dark Skies and the CPRE to develop improved road lighting standards. It is also investing in technology that allows lighting to be dimmed or switched off in response to lower traffic flows.
Finally, it is important to remember, as has been pointed out, that light pollution can affect wildlife as well as people, and that nocturnal or migratory species in particular can be disturbed by it. We have legislative controls in place to prevent the disturbance of protected species, and Natural England is always available to provide advice in such cases, including by helping to think through the possible unintended consequences of artificial lighting for habitats and wildlife.
It is not only central and local government that are taking action in this area. Last year, for example, the Campaign to Protect Rural England launched interactive maps that allow users anywhere in the country to look at the artificial lighting situation in their postcode compared with other parts of the country. That is a useful tool that can inform local decision making on where action may be needed to control light pollution.
It is important that dark skies and the management of artificial light are part of our future thinking on the environment, given how important we know they are for wellbeing, quality of life and so much else besides. We need to ensure that policy in this area evolves to take account of the challenges and opportunities of the next 25 years, and that we balance the needs of a growing, vibrant society with the ability to access tranquil spaces and clear night skies, now and in future generations.
I will try to answer some of the questions. On funding, I have already tried to guide my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall towards the Energy Saving Trust. I think in particular of the funding she requested for Ken and Muriel Bennett. Off the top of my head, I do not have a particular sense of where that would be at the moment, but I wonder if the Royal Astronomical Society would be a useful avenue to explore. I also think, if they are trying to widen the educational opportunity, lottery funding from the big society may be something to consider.
On some of the other questions that the hon. Member for Stroud raised, the Government are not setting out a plan deliberately to try to grow the number of applications. There are now sufficient parks for us to share how people can best do this, but I must emphasise that the Government do not have a formal role in the designation process. It is non-governmental and non-statutory; in fact, it is undertaken by the International Dark-Sky Association. It looks at five sorts of different designations that people can apply for and be considered for. The applications are reviewed by a standing committee composed of dark sky experts and previous successful programme applicants. Given the growing number of these areas, not only in England but in Wales and Scotland, there is sufficient expertise out there that interested councils could go to. I must admit that I am considering encouraging my council in Suffolk Coastal to consider this.
I conclude by once again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue. She really has highlighted how wonderful this has been for her constituency, and I look forward to hearing more about how the designation of Bodmin moor as an international dark sky landscape helps to benefit her local community, both directly and through tourism and research over the years ahead. I am happy to explore how my Department might want to assist future applications, but I am conscious that, as I say, there is expertise out there already. As always, I encourage people to look to those who have already had success.
I thank hon. Members for attending the debate, which has clearly demonstrated that there is complete cross-party consensus. We have had contributions from the official Opposition, the Scottish nationalists, the Democratic Unionist party and the Conservative party. I think we are all speaking with one voice on this issue. Let us hope that we can take this forward in every way possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Cornwall’s dark skies status.