Tuesday 27 February 2018
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
Private Probation Services
I beg to move,
That this House has considered private probation services.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I am delighted to have secured this debate on the role of private probation services in our justice system, an extremely important topic that I have wanted to raise for some time, particularly in the light of the reported failings of community rehabilitation companies in the probation system. The Select Committee on Justice, of which I am a member, is discussing the future of rehabilitation this morning, but the complexities of the parliamentary timetable have meant that I am here instead.
The current situation stems from the splitting of probation services into two parts in the coalition Government’s attempt to transform rehabilitation. Given the issues that I will address in my speech and the problems created by the implementation of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, it is fair to say that justice policies have regressed since 2010. Probation services are now split between the national probation service, which is public and deals with high-risk offenders, and the outsourced, private community rehabilitation companies, which work with medium and low-risk offenders. The 21 CRCs were divided geographically and opened up to bids from the private sector and the third sector. Originally, 800 organisations—half from the voluntary sector—expressed an interest, but only one CRC is currently run by an organisation outside the private sector.
The primary objectives of the 2013 “Transforming Rehabilitation” initiative were to reform the system and reduce reoffending overall, partly with a Through the Gate method of enhanced rehabilitation that aims to provide prisoners with support and help in their resettlement as they make their transition back into civilian life. A prisoner in the transition stage at the end of their sentence usually requires assistance with accommodation, financial support and employment. However, as I will describe later, the original objectives are yet to be met. The reality is that the toxic privatisation of probation services has meant that CRCs continue to fail the people they were set up to help.
At the time of the reforms, Ian Lawrence, the general secretary of Napo, warned about organisational difficulties, cost and impact on communities and public safety. Furthermore, a leaked Ministry of Justice memo about the reforms said that there was a risk of
“an unacceptable drop in operational performance”
during the programme, which might lead to
“delivery failures and reputational damage”.
Those concerns were well founded. Since Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation began inspecting CRCs in summer 2016, it has found the majority to be operating below expectations. By the end of June 2017, CRCs had met an average of just eight of the 24 targets set under their contracts, and the worst-performing CRC met only four. If CRCs are incapable of reaching basic objectives, it casts great doubt on the ability of the whole exercise ever to reach the aims set out in the 2013 “Transforming Rehabilitation” consultation.
Our CRC in Gloucestershire, BGSW—Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire—is owned by a European finance bank. It has had a number of poor reports, yet it seems to just carry on getting in the way of the voluntary sector, which does genuinely good work with ex-offenders. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is completely crazy that BGSW is allowed to continue?
I agree that there are companies with little accountability, in which good work is not carried out and offenders are not properly managed. Often contact is made by telephone and probation officers do not contact offenders for months on end. I will address those points in more detail later, but I agree that the situation is unacceptable.
Probation is turning into a tick-box exercise, but it is not a profession that should be driven by targets; it requires a well-rounded approach centred on individuals and their needs, not—as we see all too often—on offenders’ ability to provide profits to the CRC. In October 2016 and June 2017, joint inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorates of probation and of prisons led to reports on Through the Gate resettlement services for short-term prisoners and for those serving 12 months or more. The picture was described as “bleak”, with inspectors noting that CRCs are making little difference to prisoners’ prospects on release. The latest annual report from Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons states that
“too many prisoners continued to receive a poor resettlement service”,
that resettlement services provided to prisoners before and on release were generally poor, and that they made little, if any, difference to the life chances of those who received them.
Some private companies, especially in Wales, are supervising low and medium-risk offenders with periodic phone contact, as my hon. Friend mentioned. That would never have happened before; it is obviously a cost-cutting exercise.
I agree. If offenders are contacted only by telephone, if appointments are missed without any follow-up and if months pass before there is contact from the probation service, the system is not working; it is driven by profit, rather than by the need to rehabilitate and prevent reoffending. That is all too often overlooked.
The HMIP report stated that in almost every respect, the quality of probation work was noticeably better across the national probation service than in the body of CRCs. That highlights the point that outsourcing and privatising probation services is just not working. It is clear that the fragmentation of services has led to an overall decline in communication and co-operation between stakeholders. The report is clear in its criticisms of CRCs and their pitiful attempts at Through the Gate rehabilitation. The conclusion of the chief inspectors was damning:
“The gap between aspiration and reality is so great, that we wonder whether there is any prospect that these services will deliver the desired impact on rates of reoffending.”
They also noted:
“If Through the Gate services were removed tomorrow, in our view the impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the failure of CRCs’ Through the Gate services will lead to more serious offending and therefore to more problems higher up for the national probation service?
Yes. If the Through the Gate system is not working and if offenders are not resettled in the community with employment, housing and engagement with probation services to get their lives back on track, we know that they are more likely to reoffend. The CRCs are not getting reoffending rates down—they have failed to deliver that.
The “Transforming Rehabilitation” programme was not just about rehabilitation, but about protecting the public—a linchpin of any justice system. However, in a recent BBC “Panorama” documentary, Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, stated that she could not say for certain that every private probation company was managing to protect the public as well as it should. In its investigation, “Panorama” spoke to an offender who was released from a short sentence in May. He said that he had not met his probation officer for almost a month after release, and that probation services were deteriorating; in the past, he knew exactly who his probation officer was, but now it was hard to tell. The CRC in that instance was MTCnovo, which covers all medium and low-risk offenders in London.
From what my hon. Friend is saying, it seems that the current system is potentially putting the public in danger and, furthermore, the leaked memo shows that the Government must have been aware that that might happen. Is that the case?
That is absolutely the case. If ex-offenders are released from prison but have no contact, or only very sporadic contact, with the probation services, how can the public be assured that they are being kept safe? The chief inspector has made that point and other people made it when the reforms were going through, but still no action has been taken and these CRCs continue to operate, which puts people at risk.
“Panorama” went on to say that it has records from MTCnovo that reveal that 15,000 appointments were missed by offenders over a 16-month period, a problem that was compounded by probation officers failing to take any action over missed appointments. A whistleblower from MTCnovo said that CRCs are employing fewer staff, so individual members of staff have higher case loads. That probation officer says that he now only has 20 minutes a month with the offenders he has to deal with, which is simply not enough. He had inherited cases where 20 to 30 appointments had been missed by offenders, and in addition he said that staff were instructed by the CRC to alter records, so that missed appointments were wiped if they were more than two weeks old.
It seems that public protection is not at the heart of this programme, and the toxic climate created by this ill-judged privatisation has clearly had a detrimental impact on staff and services too. Following the creation of the National Probation Service and CRCs, existing staff were redistributed between the two organisations. From the start, CRCs had smaller case loads than predicted, which resulted in reduced levels of income, followed by restructuring with substantial job losses. Fewer staff can deal with fewer cases and the added focus on restructuring has often meant that the quality of core service delivery suffered. Low-risk offenders were often only supervised by telephone, as we have discussed, and work on safeguarding and domestic abuse was often substandard.
Three and a half years since the CRCs were created, it is clear that staff morale is low and individual case loads are too high. There are not enough staff, and many of them lack the experience and resources to do the job properly.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are a large number of highly skilled and experienced probation officers who have been lost due to their being placed in the private side of the organisation, which is not always through their own choice?
I agree with that assessment and there is now a situation where there have been substantial job losses, so that a lot of very experienced probation officers are no longer in post. The system is one where staff are overworked and do not necessarily have the skills and equipment that they need.
I will come on to some of the findings of a Unison survey. Unison has 3,500 members working across CRCs and the National Probation Service. It carried out a survey of members who work for CRCs and the 215 responses that it received make for really shocking reading. Twenty-five per cent. of staff said that they only occasionally had the equipment, resources or systems they needed to do their jobs properly; 41% said that they never experienced a manageable case load; 25% said that their CRC never or only occasionally completed community orders within the required time; and 43% said they never felt valued by their CRC.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that CRCs received extra funding from the Government that was worth £37.15 million in the 2016-17 financial year, but because of the secrecy of the contracts between the Government and CRCs we cannot break that down to the level of individual companies or even receive the details of those contracts?
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. After I have said a little bit about staff and morale, I will go on to talk a little bit about the financial bailout of CRCs, because it is really important that we recognise the additional money that has gone into propping up these failing companies. However, I will complete my points about staff morale and then move on to that issue.
I want to flag up some of the things that probation staff said in response to the Unison survey. One said:
“Chaotic, frustrating and exhausting. Caseloads are too high and I don’t feel as if I do anything to protect the public anymore, I simply process people. Service users…often comment as to how impersonal our service is now and that they feel telephone contact with offender managers is inadequate. Very sad knowing that I used to do good work.”
“I have inherited a new caseload since early 2017—many cases have not been contacted for months—one case today I managed to contact had not heard from anyone at Probation for 16 months in a 24-month suspended sentence. It is not good enough.”
Perhaps the most damning response was this one:
“I feel stressed, de-professionalised and ready to give it up. This government have transformed rehabilitation alright. They have ruined it.”
Probation is ultimately a caring profession and it should be viewed as being a bit like teaching or social work. However, it is clear that those who work within the service are being hugely let down by privatised and profit-driven CRCs. That is summed up by the underlying tension between CRCs meeting contractual obligations and their responding to the needs of offenders, with the latter receiving much less attention than the former. Shockingly the Government are now in a position where, as has already been said, they are bailing out CRCs at a cost of millions of pounds. As things stand, CRCs are paid for the volume of rehabilitation activity.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that linking payment to demand has not only affected service in times of low requirement, but has made the position of the Work First employees, whom she has described in such detail, much worse, so that many of them are suffering from low morale and are in precarious employment?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, and she is absolutely right. If a system is introduced whereby people are paid by results, that turns probation into the tick-box exercise that we have seen. It is not focused on rehabilitation and public protection but on making sure that all the right boxes are ticked, so that the CRC can generate profit. Profit-driven rather than people-driven is what has happened to the probation service.
CRCs are paid for the volume of rehabilitation activity that they carry out, rather than for the number of offenders that are supervised. The Ministry of Justice originally claimed that it would transfer the commercial risk of future volumes of rehabilitation activity going down, as well as up, to CRCs. They are paid in a complex way, with different payment bands for the provision of different types of rehabilitation service. However, the current volumes of activity that CRCs are paid for are far below the levels expected when the contracts were awarded.
According to National Audit Office figures, in 2015-16, the activities undertaken by CRCs ranged from 8% to 34% less than originally anticipated. In the first quarter of 2017-18, volumes of activity ranged from 16% to 48% less than anticipated. At the same time, the number of offenders supervised by CRCs increased by 20%. In effect, CRCs have to look after more offenders but do less work.
Moreover, as has become common across many private sector initiatives that have been put out to tender, CRCs underestimated their fixed costs when bidding for contracts. However, the MOJ agreed that the taxpayer, not the private companies, should shoulder that cost as well. So far, this is predicted to have cost the taxpayer an additional £342 million through a bailout of companies that was followed by adjustments made to the payment mechanism last year. It is not as if the MOJ is beyond rectifying the situation, as it has many tools at its disposal. It is entitled to fine the CRCs for poor performance, but it has either waived or allowed CRCs to reinvest 71% of the total fines due to the taxpayer.
One option that the MOJ considered in respect of poor performance by CRCs was to terminate some, or all, of their contracts. However, it decided instead to let the taxpayer take the strain of the failing contracts by amending the contract payment mechanisms to give the CRCs more money. It is clear that the privatisation of probation services has failed, and the overarching point, which repeats itself time and again, is that this is yet another example of Government-led privatisation that has gone wrong. The original arrangement and subsequent contracts were not fit for purpose in the first place, and what we are left with is a system driven by the ideological desire to privatise key elements of our justice system and defend the cause even when it evidently fails.
The idea of a Government bailing out a private sector service when the prison and rehabilitation services are in crisis should concern us all, particularly given that ageing, dilapidated prisons are falling apart—HMP Liverpool has been described as having the worst conditions inspectors have ever seen—services within prisons are grinding to a halt, with mental health assessments taking far too long, prisoners are denied access to education and rehabilitation facilities, and a quarter of prisoners are accommodated in overcrowded conditions. Notwithstanding the cost of CRCs on the public purse, how many more reasons do the Government need before they take the prisons crisis seriously, take control of the rehabilitation of offenders and make our justice system fit for purpose? Rehabilitation in the community, if executed correctly, can be a key factor in reducing reoffending, but how can services that continue to be rated as poor by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation continue to qualify for these massive payments from central Government while not even doing the job they are paid to do? It is time, once and for all, to bring the failed schemes back under public control, so that we can get to the root causes of reoffending and provide rehabilitation services that are fit for purpose.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for securing this important debate and introducing it excellently. I declare an interest as co-chair of the justice unions and family courts parliamentary group.
In the 2010 coalition agreement, the Government promised a rehabilitation revolution, but with the privatisation of probation companies, we have instead had a fundamental erosion of the humanitarian principles that underpin meaningful rehabilitation. The Government refuse to acknowledge that their blinkered ideology of privatisation has failed and, in so doing, they are failing with regard to the basic premise of justice as a common good for all of society.
Good offender management is inseparable from quality probation supervision. In its most recent report, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation warns that it had found
“CRCs stretched beyond their capacity”
and that, in many CRCs,
“case management itself is insufficient to enable good enforcement decisions”,
which statistics in the report confirm—only 37% of CRC enforcement cases sampled involved good-quality assessment of the likelihood of reoffending, compared with 83% in the public sector national probation service. It is said that we should not compare CRCs with the NPS, but the most serious crimes lie with the NPS, and when we see figures of 37% versus 83%, there are questions to be answered.
That is wholly unsurprising when we look at how CRCs supervise people, with infrequent meetings, and sometimes only by phone, which breaks the face-to-face relationships that are vital to successful probation work. That lack of meaningful engagement has led to poor decisions in managing breaches of orders. The recent HMIP report also reveals that, in more than half of all inspected cases in which CRCs had returned service users to court, the decision to enforce was not appropriate, compared with just 14% of NPS cases. It appears that CRCs were “seldom” making such decisions on the risk of harm posed or the likelihood of reoffending.
CRCs are private companies. At best, they are motivated by the detail of contract compliance, rather than by the true quality of supervision. The ethos of public service and motivation of care are not their primary drivers. Does the Minister finally recognise that dismantling the probation service and replacing it with a part-privatised model has failed, and will he commit his Government to listening to the professionals when they call for an end to profiting from probation?
It is all very well to talk in statistics, but the failings have real consequences for real families. Almost three years ago, in March 2015, an innocent young man was murdered by an offender who was meant to be under the supervision of Working Links, the CRC operating in Wales. Conner Marshall, an 18-year-old, was staying with friends at a caravan site in Porthcawl, Bridgend when he was attacked in a case of mistaken identity. High on a cocktail of alcohol and drugs, his killer stamped on his face, kicked him in the ribs, stripped him naked and hit him repeatedly with a metal pole. The individual has been jailed for life after having been found guilty of murder. Conner’s killer was on community probation for a string of offences, including domestic violence and animal cruelty. He was on curfew and ordered to attend anti-drugs and alcohol meetings, but failed to turn up to several of them. Procedures were not followed. There were eight missed appointments, six of which were without valid reason. That was eight missed opportunities to rein in the murderer and implement the breach conditions. The opportunities were never taken, and he was not stopped. On behalf of Conner’s mother, Nadine Marshall, I emphasise that at present there are no representation policies for the families of victims in such horrific and tragic circumstances.
The system as it currently operates is not fit for purpose. Less than a decade ago, we were promised a rehabilitation revolution. Will the Minister confirm whether, and if so when, the wheel will finally turn beyond this failed revolution?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this important debate. I want to make some brief remarks about what people who work in probation in Plymouth have told me. We owe them a debt of thanks.
The Government’s part-privatisation of probation has been a colossal failure. The broken system is putting the public at greater risk and increasingly leaving taxpayers out of pocket. Ministers knew before the privatisation was put in place that the system would not work. Experts told them that it would conflict with best practice and put added pressure on staff, yet they went ahead. When it was obvious that the early CRCs were failing, the privatisation continued, meaning that people who relied on probation services to be professional and of high quality were being failed and, as a result, so were the public. Ministers must now know that it is unacceptable for the Government to continually bail out CRCs. It is time to draw a line in the sand. With our prisons in crisis, we need probation to perform without hindrance, organisational chaos and uncertainty.
The whole criminal justice system needs to be improved because it is not working. CRCs are not working. I fear that Ministers, not for the first time, are defending a broken system made worse by privatisation. Probation cannot wait for a Labour Government to end the shambles and bring the contracts back into the public sector, so we must put pressure on Ministers to act now. I fear that Ministers are conforming to type. When privatisation goes wrong they first defend the failure of the privatised services. Secondly, they reward the failure, as we see in the bailing out of CRCs. Finally, there is a continued failure to tackle the root causes of the problem: putting profit ahead of people, fragmentation of the services, and the way in which the system undervalues staff and misses results. Defending failure, rewarding failure and failing to tackle the root causes are the hallmarks not only of what has happened to probation services, but of the privatisation of our NHS, and we need to call it out. Probation is too important to let privatisation fail. We must make the system work, and if that cannot be done by bringing the contracts back in house, Ministers need to get a grip on the system.
Probation staff in Plymouth have told me a variety of stories about their experience of working in the system and about what it means for the people they are trying to help. It is worth remembering that people who work in probation do so because they want to make the lives of the people they work with better, reduce reoffending and protect the public. They show a genuine, caring devotion. They do not go into probation because they are looking for big pay cheques—they would be looking in the wrong place—but because they want to make a difference. That good will and the hard work of the staff is possibly the only thing that is holding the probation system together.
Following privatisation, probation officers in the national probation service have carried ridiculously high case loads of offenders who pose high or very high risk of harm. Probation officers working in the public sector do not have a balanced case load of medium and high-risk cases any more, as there was before the split. The pressure and stress of those cases together with the insufficient number of probation officers to do the job has resulted in unmanageable case loads and higher levels of sickness among staff. Has that been found in Plymouth?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Having about 60 cases per individual maintains professionalism and a safe level of contact with offenders. It is now being reported that, in some cases, probation officers are handling 200 cases. The Minister has a famously good memory, but not everyone who works in probation has that. Remembering the details of 200 cases is asking too much of those who work in our probation system.
The staff I have spoken to in Plymouth have told me that they feel undervalued and overworked. The best practice that they spent years developing has been taken out of the system and good methods of rehabilitation have been stripped back. Staff have told me that they are worried that things are only going to get worse. One member of staff told me that she went into the profession because she cared. She told me that she loves her job, but all too frequently she is going home at night and crying because she knows that the level of care and professionalism she is able to offer is not what she would like. That damages her feeling of self-worth and of being valued by the system. These are precisely the type of people we need to retain and support in our probation system. It is a poor way to treat the people who keep our public safe.
In Plymouth, the failures of our probation system were brought home on new year’s day 2015 by the murder of Tanis Bhandari in Tamerton Foliot, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). In Plymouth, there has been a debate, led most ably by Councillor Philippa Davey, about the failures of probation to monitor Donald Pemberton at the time when he and Ryan Williams murdered the Plymouth builder, Tanis. Tanis was an incredibly popular figure within Plymouth, and the failure of the probation system to monitor the offenders probably directly led to that murder, because a better managed system would reduce reoffending. A poor probation system has real-world consequences, and Tanis’s family is one of the many families across the country that are being let down by a system that is not working and is clearly failing. How many more families need to be let down for Ministers to act?
The CRC system is not working. It needs to be brought back in house. I ask the Minister not to do the three things that we frequently hear from Ministers on broken prioritisation systems. Please do not defend the failure of the system or reward it any further. Please tackle the root cause: a broken and fragmented prioritisation system that is not working. Our public and the staff who do such an amazing job in our probation service deserve much better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I apologise to the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), who I thought would have been called before me. We will hear her comments later on.
We do not have private probation services in Northern Ireland, but I have been sent some information and I want to add constructively to the debate if I can. I will focus on the individuals and how they can be rehabilitated in prison, as well as the family units. It is important that we focus on the effects on all the people.
I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for securing this debate and for setting the scene so well, as she always does. The issue does not directly affect Northern Ireland, yet there are lessons to be learned for all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have a prison system groaning under the weight of the pressures on it. We have a judicial system that is extremely aware that it can imprison only if it is essential, because there is no room. We have a probation system that is still failing to rehabilitate prisoners, to the detriment of every member of society. I am not here to point the finger at the Department or the Minister. That is not my form; but neither is it my form to ignore issues that have been raised. That is why we are all here today, and Members have put forward pertinent points in their contributions and interventions.
There is an issue with the new system that needs to be addressed. I say that not to score political points or to demonstrate that my ideas are better than those of others; we simply have to do the best we can by offenders. We need to put in place structures that support them. Through that, we can help to prevent reoffending. The issues with reoffending are important.
Would the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the fundamental failings is the lack of continuity between what happens in prison, where there is a need for people to be properly rehabilitated and prepared for release, and what happens afterwards? If my area is anything to go by, there is no overlap; things have to start again as soon as people are released. That means that offenders and ex-offenders feel completely let down.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will touch on that issue, because it is important that we have that follow on. What happens next after someone gets out of prison is a clear issue.
It is sometimes easy to fall into a mentality of seeing those in prison as lost causes, but that is not something I believe at all. I believe that all people can make mistakes and that they can put right those mistakes and become contributors to their communities again. The hon. Gentleman and others have referred to that. I know a few good men who society washed their hands of during the troubles in Northern Ireland, yet they were given the opportunity by one tender-hearted person and are now upstanding pillars of the community. People can change, and we have a responsibility to enable that change to take place. It may not work for every individual, but it can work for a great many. I know people who have changed. That is the reality. We need to focus on what can be achieved and how we can achieve it. That has to be our goal and purpose.
I was surprised to learn that one in 10 people in England and Wales are released back to their community without a roof over their head. That simply should not be. They should not be released with a metaphorical boot to the backside, without so much as a by-your-leave. In some cases, that seems to be the way it is, and it is hard to understand why. We must ensure that they not only have somewhere to sleep the day they come home, but that they have something meaningful to achieve the next morning. We have a rehabilitation process for people to go through when they are in prison and when they get out. If they are going home to nothing, it is little wonder that it is so easy to get into the same routine. We must ask how we can do things differently. How can we get these men and women involved in our society in a meaningful and helpful way?
Thus far, the private probation services have been unable to make a difference. I do not want to be unduly critical, but that is what the evidential base indicates. Indeed, some reports indicate that incidences of reoccurrence have intensified. If they are intensifying, as was referred to in an intervention, that may be because a phone call does not achieve what a meeting or appointment can. I suggest to the Minister that it should be a meeting or appointment. That is more constructive and face-to-face, and it can make changes. Printing off a housing form does not achieve the results that attending the housing executive—in England, it is the local council—does. We should not mollycoddle these people, but if we believe in the justice system at all, we believe they have paid their debt to society and deserve help to find their way in a different world. We should encourage them to do so.
I also think of the children and families of offenders. It is essential that follow-up services are provided for the sake of those nearest and dearest to them. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted that prisoners’ families were vulnerable to financial instability, poverty, debt and potential housing disruption following the imprisonment of a family member. It can be easy to forget that these issues affect not just the individual, but the whole family unit. The report found that families subsidised imprisonment by sending prisoners money, clothing and electronic goods. The responsibility to help those in prison financially often falls to a great extent on families. Disadvantage associated with imprisonment includes high rates of depression—sometimes the health spin-offs are not taken on board—physical illness, housing disruption and, for families of foreign national prisoners, permanent separation after deportation. Again, that is perhaps not an issue for this debate, but it is certainly something that the system should address.
The report also highlighted how prisoners’ partners and mothers prioritised the care needs of children above household income, and there is an impact on children at school, where we know that peer pressure can be difficult. Barriers to employment were magnified for those caring for prisoners’ children. The complications are enormous. When someone comes out of prison to a family under such strain and pressure, it is easy to see how they could go back to their old ways, not understanding that breaking the cycle will help to heal the hurt that their family is going through. That should be taken into consideration and should be a priority for the Government when discussing how to rehabilitate prisoners successfully. That should be our goal. I know the Minister wants that, as we all do in this House.
To conclude, I cannot say how the shortfall has come about, but we must all acknowledge—as Members who have contributed so far have indicated—that there is a definite shortfall that we must address for our communities. I hope the Minister, whom we all respect highly, will tell us how he intends to do that, either in the new private system or by taking back the reins, which is what I think the Members here want. Decisions need to be made, and for the sake of our family units we must ensure that changes are made as a matter of urgency.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made interesting points. I welcome his comment about taking back the reins, because that gets to the heart of the matter. Because of the fragmentation of the system, nobody is holding the reins in the way that they once did when looking at the rehabilitation of offenders outside of prison. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this debate. This area of justice policy has never had the scrutiny and interest that it deserves from Members or the media, or from anywhere. It is good to see Members in this place taking a lead and putting the spotlight on this issue, because it is so important.
Sadly, the situation today was entirely predictable. It has been a disaster and it was avoidable, but it could be remedied. I know that the Minister was not in the Ministry of Justice when the decisions were taken, so we do not blame him, but he now has the opportunity to reverse some of the decisions that have led to the catastrophe in the service. If he does not take that opportunity, he will be responsible for that and we will hold him to it. If he were to indicate that he might review the system or look at reunifying probation services, I am sure—although I cannot speak for my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain)—that he would have the wholehearted support of Opposition parties across the House.
The warnings about the Government’s mistake came not only from the Labour party, but from staff, the unions and academics, and from people from other jurisdictions where similar things had been attempted. Nobody that I could find thought the Government were taking the right approach.
There was not much scrutiny at the time of how the changes would affect probation staff—the professionals who had decided to dedicate their working lives to working with some of the most incredibly difficult people in society. I have had limited experience of working with offenders, and they are flippin’ difficult. They do not always tell you the truth, so the idea of assessing what they are doing with their lives, what they intend to do next or what control they have over their own decision making, all on the basis of a phone call, is completely implausible to most people with any experience of working with such individuals. We have separated not only offenders, but a group of professionals who were very good at sharing knowledge, supporting one another and working with a mix of offenders. Working with serious offenders all the time is difficult, stressful and emotionally hard work.
The Minister needs to read some of the court reports that detail some of the offences committed by offenders to see how that affects him. I do not think the supervision needed when working with such groups of offenders has ever really been properly provided, but it is even more difficult now, when individuals work with those types of offenders all the time. It is incredibly difficult work. Previously, someone might go into probation and work with some low or medium-risk offenders for a while and gradually take on higher-risk individuals under supervision. That progression and development in practice and that knowledge and understanding have been lost. That is a real loss to the service. We might not be seeing the impact just yet, but we will increasingly see it over time.
The Government have argued in the past that we had not allowed enough time to review the performance of CRCs, but we are now more than two years after payment by results was brought in, so it is time to review whether it is working effectively or not.
I agree: now is the moment. It would have been better to run a pilot, but the Government were determined to embark on a mission that was so fundamentally flawed it was never going to work. Had they been so minded, they could have piloted the approach and gathered evidence of the problems. That would have caused far less damage than selling off half the service in 35 different trust areas in one go and thinking that everything would go smoothly. They removed any opportunity for learning in the process, and that was reckless. It is something that the Government, even if they will not say so publicly, really ought to reflect on and probably should regret.
Selling off all the areas at once was incredibly high risk. The then Secretary of State, the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), was asked at the time why he was so determined to do it. I remember this clearly and was quite shocked. He was asked for any evidence from anywhere to justify such a reckless move, and he simply said that he had inner belief that it would work. He was determined to prove it, and then he went off to run the trains. What the Government did was a mistake. It was stupid and is not something that this Minister would want to repeat. I am sure he is somebody who will look at evidence and take into account the track record of CRCs. He needs to make decisions that will change the current structures.
The whole thing has been based on the flawed premise that offenders fall neatly into two separate groups, but they do not. Risk fluctuates constantly. It takes experienced probation officers to assess that—to notice it, to know what they are supposed to look for and then to know what to do when they suspect the risk might be about to change.
We are talking about an incredibly difficult group of people. Probably everybody here has heard this, but I want to get some characteristics of offenders on the record—27% having been taken into care, compared with 2% of the general population; 49% having been excluded from school, compared with 2%; numeracy and literary levels of an 11-year-old or below at 65% and 48% respectively; 72% of men and 70% of women with two or more mental disorders; 83% of men with a history of hazardous drinking; drug misuse at 66%. We are not talking about people who have just got themselves on the earliest steps to a life of criminality. These are chaotic, confused people, with very little control over what they do. In the sector, they would probably say they are bang at it and are only getting lifted for a proportion of what they are up to. Probation work is incredibly difficult and it relies on the good will, professionalism and experience of an outstanding workforce. To be successful, we need to harness the very best practice in the profession and make that available to all offenders.
The trusts could have delivered that. They were doing a good job and met all the targets they were set by successive Governments. They were independently assessed at the time as excellent. Had the Government wanted them to behave in a different way, such as to work more collaboratively with voluntary and community sector organisations, they should have made that clear to trusts and made that a target. I am confident that the trusts would have been able to deliver on the objectives set them by the Government, even the ambition of wanting to supervise those being released from a prison sentence of less than 12 months. That was one of the objectives the Government set at the time. I do not deny that it was a good objective, but there was no attempt at all to try to achieve it within the existing arrangements. That was negligent and arrogant. It was a bullish approach from Ministers at the time, and it was a real mistake.
This is a complex issue, but it is incredibly high stakes. Splitting the service has been an error. I urge Ministers to listen now in a way that they did not at that time, and to take whatever steps are necessary to reverse the decision and keep the public safe.
There being no other Back-Bench Members wishing to speak, I call the shadow Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I begin by joining other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this debate. Hon. Members are absolutely right that this issue does not get the airtime that it deserves. It needs discussion. My hon. Friend made a powerful speech, comprehensively setting out the factual background to the formation of the community rehabilitation companies and setting out the failures with great clarity, as did many other hon. Members. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this important debate.
It is clear from listening to the contributions that—let us be clear and frank—the state of probation is dire. Although there were problems back in 2015, probation never used to look like this. The Government’s ill-fated reform agenda, “Transforming Rehabilitation”, has been nothing short of a failure. It has failed offender rehabilitation, with many left ill-equipped for life on the outside. It has failed prison officers and governors, who are seeing their prisons pushed to breaking point by overcrowding, and it has failed the public, who are bearing the financial and safety brunt of the failures. The only group that it has not failed, as has quite rightly been pointed out, are the private companies that are lining their pockets.
When reforming probation, the Government had the opportunity to make things better, transform rehabilitation, improve the prospects of offenders and slash reoffending, which is costing the country £15 billion a year. What they delivered was not so much transforming rehabilitation as privatising rehabilitation, weakening rehabilitation and ultimately destroying rehabilitation. By almost every metric and every means by which to measure its effectiveness and its success, it has failed, and some aspects have failed spectacularly.
Hon. Members have quite rightly mentioned the failures of the Through the Gate services, which have been a complete disaster. In 2015, the then Prisons Minister stated that those services would provide
“support to offenders for accommodation needs, employment brokerage and retention, finance and debt advice”.
I have seen very little evidence that that support is being provided and no sign of real, joined-up services to support offender rehabilitation.
The HMIP report and its conclusions on Through the Gate services have been referred to. What it found was startling, particularly in the areas of support the Ministry of Justice identified. Of its sample of short-term prisoners, just 31% had sufficient work done with them to meet their accommodation needs, just 33% their education and training needs, and just 12% their finance, benefit and debt advice needs. Some 10% of the sample found themselves homeless on release. Another report by HMIP found, quite worryingly, that not one offender had been helped by Through the Gate services to enter education, training or employment after release.
Order. For the benefit of the Chair and for Hansard, it might be better if the shadow Minister swivelled round a little and spoke into the microphone.
My apologies, Ms McDonagh. End-to-end offender management is vital to stop reoffending, and HMIP has set out a minimum level of requirements for resettlement. However, it is clear that Through the Gate services, when provided by private probation companies, cannot deliver. They cannot support offender rehabilitation and they cannot prepare them for life on the outside after release. It is that inability to support offenders that ensures that a privatised probation system can do nothing to stop reoffending.
Currently, around two in three prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months reoffend. One in three prisoners on longer sentences reoffend. Stopping reoffending is the very core of a probation company’s goal. It is its purpose, yet 19 out of 21 private probation companies have seen an increase in reoffending because they are treating probation not as an important service but as a box-ticking exercise. There is little to no meaningful engagement, with supervision of offenders taking place over the phone, as has been pointed out. If they do meet face-to-face, it is sometimes in a very public space with no privacy, such as in a library.
The MOJ stated that the “Transforming Rehabilitation” programme would allow providers to focus relentlessly on driving down reoffending, but that has clearly not happened, as if they are not properly supported, offenders cannot be helped in not reoffending. That does not just impact on offender rehabilitation. It has knock-on effects for prisons, as those reoffending are sent back to an overcrowded prison system, which in 2015-16 saw, on average, almost 21,000 prisoners held in overcrowded accommodation. That in turn affects prison safety, as fewer prison officers are dealing with more prisoners. The rampant and increasing violence we are seeing in prisons is just one by-product of overcrowding, putting prison officers and prisoner safety at risk.
Probation failures are not just failing those criminal justice professionals by putting their safety at risk; they are failing the judicial system, which finds itself with fewer options for sentencing. An independent judiciary that can use its discretion to a degree is an important pillar of justice, but as there is increasing distrust of CRCs to deliver community sentences, it finds itself with fewer options.
However far removed all this might be perceived to be from many people’s lives, with many of them never having an interaction with prison and probation services, the Government’s changes to probation have also failed the public. People expect safety and security in the knowledge that we have a criminal justice system that works; they expect judges to have a range of options open to them; they expect offenders to be punished when they go to prison; to be rehabilitated while there; and to be released back into the community as changed persons ready to contribute to society. But prison is not working, with increasing violence and persistent overcrowding, and neither is probation. Offenders are released back into communities without proper reform, as we see from the failure of Through the Gate services, and without proper supervision, as we see with private probation companies supervising them by phone.
The decision to privatise night-waking watch staff and replace them with minimum-wage staff at probation hostels, which house the most dangerous ex-offenders, further threatens safety and shows that the Government have not learned the lessons from privatising justice. Two people have been killed at probation hostels in the past year. The cost of reoffending totals about £15 billion a year, according to the Work and Pensions Committee. The public are footing the bill for overcrowding and reoffending, and their safety is being compromised.
The Government’s probation privatisation is failing offender rehabilitation, criminal justice professionals and the public, but not private companies, which, in fact, have quite a comfortable life. They have taken on contracts over which the MOJ has little oversight. They have failed in their goal of reducing reoffending, and there have been numerous critical reports from the probation inspector, yet no sanctions have been applied to them. If any other organisation failed in its objectives, its contracts would be wound up, so why not probation companies? They have not received the financial benefits they expected, but all they have to do is cry about falling profits and the Government bail them out. Some £22 million was handed over before any changes were made. No questions were asked, and there was no scrutiny of the private probation companies to prevent future failings. Instead, the Government changed the contracts afterwards to make things easier. The private probation companies are getting away with failure and are frankly being rewarded for it.
The creation of private probation companies has been a disaster, and the reform of probation has been an extraordinary failure. The companies have let down everyone they have come across and are not fit for purpose. I have a number of questions for the Minister. He and I have worked together on other policy areas, and I know that he is quite an amiable, reasonable chap. He has the opportunity today to really listen, to address this issue and to start afresh. Nobody will accept that the privatisation of probation has not been a failure.
My asks of the Minister are these. Will he accept that Through the Gate services have failed, and will he put in place changes in conjunction with other Departments to deliver joined-up services so that offenders are given every opportunity to be rehabilitated on release? What is the contingency plan in the event of the collapse of Interserve, which, as I am sure he will agree, is increasingly likely? Has his Department learned lessons from this disaster, and will it keep people safe by abandoning its plans to privatise the night-waking watch in probation hostels? Finally, will he accept that transforming rehabilitation has been a failure, and will he commit to take probation back in-house to deliver a probation service that works for offender rehabilitation, the criminal justice system and the public, not for private, profit-making companies?
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this debate, which is hugely important, given the risk that criminals can pose to the public, as the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) eloquently put it. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) expressed the very important idea that people can change and improve, and that the public can be protected through that individual journey.
We have always faced fundamental challenges, but the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge is absolutely right that there have been very significant challenges since 2014. However, let me briefly take it back to before 2014. As the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) pointed out, the reality is that it is and has always been extremely difficult to do this kind of work. Before the privatisation of 2014, for nearly 30 or 40 years, probation services worked extremely hard under different Governments to reduce reoffending, and over a 40-year period the reoffending rate barely moved. It hovered around 50% within one year and 70% within nine years. It did not matter whether people were involved with innovative housing, mental health or employment projects. It was stubbornly difficult to reduce reoffending.
Despite all the problems with Through the Gate services that the hon. Member for Bradford East talked about, those services effectively did not exist before 2014. I was at Nottingham prison yesterday. Before 2014, nobody in the prison would have been working on the initial five-day assessment and the pre-12-week assessment to ensure that prisoners are properly co-ordinated Through the Gate. The CRC is now embedded in the building. It is also true that, even before 2014, there were sadly a number of issues with people coming out of prison, reoffending and harming the public.
I take very seriously the complaints that have been made. Those are serious observations by Members of Parliament and the chief inspector, who found and raised powerfully significant problems relating to morale—in particular, staff morale—case load, which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) raised, and the tragedy when things go wrong. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) described the horrifying situation that happened to her constituent, Conner, when somebody who was supervised under a CRC contract reoffended.
All those things need to be gripped and dealt with. The disagreement between the Government and the Opposition is that, for a number of reasons, I do not believe the question is only whether the service should be provided by the public sector or the private sector. Many of these issues predate the privatisation. There were very significant problems with probation in 2010, 2012 and 2014. It made sense—on this, I defend my predecessors—to try to work out how to deal with some of those stubborn problems, including, first, the absence of any proper Through the Gate services; secondly, the fact that before 2014, 40,000 prolific reoffenders were not supervised at all; and, thirdly, how on earth to deal with the stubborn reoffending rate of 50%. It seemed perfectly justifiable that people would try to think about how we could focus relentlessly on dropping the reoffending rate and on encouraging innovation. Why innovation? Because an enormous number of voluntary-sector organisations and charities around the country have proved that the reoffending rates can be reduced. I was looking at a recent example in Stafford, where a chaplaincy housing project has managed to reduce the reoffending of persistent reoffenders—a very tough group to work with—from 50% to what appears to be about 17%. There are similar examples, such as the Clink restaurant in Brixton Prison. Meeting people at the gate, finding them a job and putting them into the catering industry reduces reoffending dramatically. The idea of the reform was to try to bring some of those new ideas into the system.
The Minister is trying to be helpful in acknowledging our points, but I want to challenge him. He is arguing that trusts were not innovative, but they absolutely were. He talks about the Clink and other examples. There are always pockets of absolutely excellent practice that have amazing successes, but the challenge is mainstreaming that, and getting it out so that it is the norm and not the exception. This reform has made that more difficult. Rather than analysing where we are, I hope the Minister will move on to tell us where he intends to take us next.
That is a very good challenge, and I will move on to the question of the voluntary sector and how to take good small examples to a bigger scale.
The challenge is what on earth to do about that. How do we address the problems? The fundamental thing is to get back to the basics, which are exactly what hon. Members in the Chamber have discussed. Basics include ensuring that people have a manageable case load, which means not going beyond 50 to 55 cases. They must meet the people in the cases regularly; they must ensure that they not only meet them but put in place a good assessment of the needs of the individual and of public protection; and they must come up with a plan linking that assessment to action. That is before we go on to the other things that we have been discussing, which is how we work with the voluntary sector and wider society. The basics need to happen first.
Around the country we can see that some people are delivering those basics well. Cumbria, for example, which has a CRC, has a good report from the inspectors for doing that. London, as the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge knows well, got a negative report from the inspectors exactly about some of those areas. We will not go into the details and explanations for some of that today. Some are about transition and inheriting a difficult situation, and London has always been difficult for probation services and has more than 30 different boroughs. There are complexities with IT systems and so on. However, we do not want to make excuses. The fundamental question is: can we sort those things out? I believe we can.
I am very confident that we can get to a situation, even in London, which is probably the most difficult area in the country, where we can have manageable case loads, where people can be met regularly, where there is good tracking of offenders—we know where they are and take good enforcement action if they do not turn up to appointments—and where the assessment and the plan are in place. I am very hopeful that, when the next inspection report comes out from the probation inspectorate, we will see those improvements even in London. I expect to be held accountable if those improvements are not recorded in the next report.
I am interested in what the Minister is saying. Will he commit to ensure proper parliamentary scrutiny of how those organisations operate, whatever their name in future? That is not the case at present.
It would be interesting to know what kind of parliamentary scrutiny the hon. Lady means. There are some pretty good examples of scrutiny—the Justice Committee is doing a report on the probation service and we have an incredibly active, energetic and highly critical chief inspector of probation who is doing an enormously good job which is drawn on by everyone around the Chamber—but I am open to more. Debates such as this one are very powerful ways to hold us to account.
The next issue, as we move on from addressing the basics, is to look at some of the questions the hon. Member for Darlington talked about, in particular how we scale up pockets of really good small practice in individual local areas. That seems to be a huge challenge for everything—not just probation but everything we do with the voluntary sector. It is infuriating to find in most of our constituencies good local providers being pushed out either by contractors coming in from elsewhere or by large charities and voluntary sector organisations. In my case, in Cumbria, they appear to come up from London with hundreds of proposal writers to take over a local council contract, but lack the local skills and knowledge to deliver.
We need to find ways to encourage CRCs to provide both the money that could go to those voluntary organisations—for example, in housing—and the cultural change, as the hon. Member for Darlington is aware, which is to encourage probation officers to let go of the cases to let specialist providers in mental health or housing take over their clients. That can be done but it must be driven through individual CRC by individual CRC. However, that is just the beginning. The big aim is to move from what happens with the individual in the probation office to what happens in broader society.
The real reason we have faced reoffending rates stubbornly stuck at 50% for nearly 40 years is that, in the end, the behaviour of someone coming out of prison is not controlled simply by what happens in the interaction with the probation officer or, when in prison, the prison officer. That is a very individual psychological engagement. What tends to happen is that the probation officer tries to change the behaviour of the individual in the room. However, that individual exists not only in the room but in a broader society. Unless such individuals can repair their relationships with family, society and the state, we will not get into a cycle in which they offend less or, eventually, do not offend at all.
That involves difficult things, with the individual feeling a sense of hope and agency; and that they can take control of their lives and have a sense of dignified participation, not as a labelled criminal but as a citizen in the fullest sense in society. No one in the Chamber has easy answers to how to achieve those things, but we must focus on ensuring that we get everything right, from the basics of meeting, assessment and planning, right through to the broader engagement with society to make that citizen function. We must recognise that the idea of desistance is not a linear path, but it is a path to reduce reoffending and protect the public.
I will conclude with three remarks. First, I pay tribute to the very hard work of probation officers. They are some of our most dedicated and serious professionals. Yesterday in Nottingham Prison I was lucky enough to see the Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Rutland CRC—people who have worked in probation trusts for nearly 30 years. They are based in the prison, telling very powerful stories about the assistance they provide in housing, and they represent exactly why we should be so proud of the work that probation officers do. They have difficult work which, as hon. Members have pointed out, combines the work of a social worker with that of someone who has to implement a court order and protect the public.
Secondly, I pay tribute to Members of Parliament. Their work in this area is often ignored by the public and, sometimes, too much ignored by Parliament. Such work matters deeply, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, both for the individuals themselves on their journey towards improvement, and for the public.
Finally, I undertake to the House that we must focus. The results that we are getting from the inspectors are simply not good enough. I wish to be judged on driving the CRCs back to the very basics of their task, and on opening up to all the innovations and new ideas shared around the Chamber, to ensure that 40 years of stubborn rates of reoffending begin to be addressed, for the sake of individual offenders and the public as a whole.
I again put on the record my thanks for being able to have this important debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) said, this issue does not often get a lot of attention either inside or outside the House, so it is important that so many hon. Members have been in the Chamber to talk about it. We have had a good discussion about the precarious position in which our probation services find themselves.
As I said, the Justice Committee, of which I am a member, is considering all the issues. I look forward to speaking in Committee after this debate about what has been discussed and how we can take it forward.
I am grateful to hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. A number of my hon. Friends raised the individual cases of their constituents, and I am aware of the tragic case of Conner Marshall, which could have been avoided had the probation service acted on missed appointments. Those were missed opportunities, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) rightly pointed out. That underscores why action on probation services is needed so urgently—so that nothing like that happens again.
We have talked at length about staff, and I am glad that the Minister put on the record the tremendous work of probation staff, often in challenging circumstances under CRCs. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) experiences of probation workers in his constituency, and of those Unison members. Probation staff do a tremendous job. They are not in the profession for the money, but because they care. They need proper resources, and they need to be valued. They need to be able to help the people that they went into the profession to help, and not just simply tick boxes to secure a profit for the CRC they work for. We will take that incredibly important point away from the debate.
It often feels like the voluntary sector is doing great work despite CRCs. In London, we have Clinks and a great charity called Switchback that does a huge amount of work with offenders, runs a café in east London and works with prisoners at the end of their sentences. More should be done to support them and to support innovation. CRCs have not been innovative. They have not done the work they ought to have been doing because they are ticking boxes. They are not there to be innovative, but to generate a profit, because they are private companies. That is where this has gone so incredibly wrong.
I am grateful for the Minister’s points about MTC Novo, which is clearly failing at probation in London. On his comments about its latest inspection, I hope we will see an improvement. I am grateful that he has been willing to be accountable for what is in that report, which I will want to follow up.
It has become evident throughout the debate that CRCs in their current form are not fit for purpose. They have been part of an ideological move away from public services, which have been handed to the private sector. When they go wrong, rather than saying, “This has gone wrong. They need to come back into public ownership”, they have been bailed out by the Government. It is not acceptable and it is ideologically driven. The CRCs need to go back into public control, so that we are left with a rehabilitation system that is fit for purpose, and that can reduce reoffending and keep the public safe and reassured. That is the main thing that we will take away from today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered private probation services.
Scottish City Deals
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the progress of Scottish city deals.
As always, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. The Localism Act 2011 created the concept of core cities in the UK and granted significant devolved power over financial and planning matters to city regions that successfully negotiated deals with central Government. As the greatest city in the world, it was inevitable that Glasgow was the first city region in Scotland to successfully negotiate a city deal in 2014. I pay tribute to the city region’s councillors—particularly the Labour councillors—who led the championing of that deal. Gordon Matheson, who was then leader of Glasgow City Council, and his colleagues played a vital role in ensuring that the deal was achieved, and it proved to be the harbinger of successful deals for Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh and Stirling.
Glasgow’s deal was agreed by the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the eight local authorities in Glasgow and the Clyde valley: East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Glasgow City, Inverclyde, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire. It aims ambitiously to support the creation of 29,000 jobs, underpinned by £1 billion of Scottish Government and UK Government capital funding and £3.3 billion of private sector investment to support a proposed infrastructure investment programme. The purported aims of the deal are based on three themes: a £1.1 billion fund to support 20 major infrastructure projects in the region, including reviving plans for the long-awaited rail link between the city centre and the airport; three labour market projects to address local employment challenges; and innovation and growth projects to support the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises and enhance the city’s life sciences sector.
The city deal promises significant funds for Glasgow’s development, but very little progress has been made since 2014. For example, more than three years after the deal was agreed, the plan for the Glasgow airport rail link, which was meant to be a key component of the deal, has yet to be agreed. I would like the UK Government to take this opportunity to explain to us Glaswegians why there has been such a significant lack of progress. That raises serious questions about the way in which the Scottish city deals, particularly the Glasgow city deal, were set up, how they are being run and where they will go next.
The Glasgow city deal has been extremely badly handled by the Governments at Westminster and Holyrood. Both the Tories and the Scottish National party need to be held to account for their failure to progress the deal, having so far failed even to agree on the outcomes they want it to deliver. The two Governments seem more focused on arguing about constitutional issues. The UK Government lack oversight of what the money they committed is being used for. Put simply, the Tories do not care enough about the deal to monitor it and press for progress.
The development of the Glasgow city deal and other Scottish city deals is evidently not a priority for the UK Government. That is fittingly exemplified by the fact that no one from the Scotland Office, which I named in my application for the debate, bothered to turn up, and that the Minister for the northern powerhouse, which is a position designed for the north of England, was dispatched to respond instead. That begs the question: what is the Scotland Office actually doing beyond hosting the occasional soirée in Dover House? It has shown a lack of leadership on this vital growth opportunity for our cities in Scotland.
Before the hon. Gentleman was elected, the problem we had with getting Scotland Office Ministers to appear in this Chamber was that there was only one Government MP representing a Scottish constituency and the Secretary of State does not normally appear here. Given that he is now joined on the Government Benches by an illustrious array of talent from Scotland, is it not time that a Scotland Office Minister came to this Chamber?
I thank my honourable colleague from the great city of Glasgow for that observant intervention. I welcome the fact that some Scottish Conservative Members are here. It is just a shame that none of them are deemed worthy of holding the position of Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, which, bizarrely, was given to someone who failed to be elected to the House and sits in the other place.
Perhaps you would like to bid for the job, sir.
This is not a bid for the job, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. May I go back to what we knew as the GARL—the Glasgow airport rail link? The Strathclyde Partnership for Transport was heavily involved in that—in fact, the route was mapped out. Does he recall that that was shelved not by the SPT but by the Scottish Government?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Since the UK Government provided half the capital for the city deal—cash that was contingent on a no vote in the 2015 referendum—it appears that the SNP Scottish Government are at best apathetic about the progress and success of the deal and are therefore dragging their feet and putting nationalism ahead of the national interest and of the interests of Glaswegians. There is no better example of that than the way in which power was ripped away from the SPT and centralised in Transport Scotland. There has been a total lack of progress in infrastructure investment in Glasgow, particularly in the Glasgow metro rail network, which was built by the Strathclyde region. There has been no substantial investment to expand the network since the end of the Strathclyde region and the centralisation of transport powers under Transport Scotland.
The Glasgow airport rail link was scrapped in 2008, and there was a fire sale of the land—a scorched earth policy—that would have allowed it to happen. We struggle to see how we can revive that deal, because all the infrastructure that was put in place to achieve it was sold off in that fire sale by John Swinney. There is also a threat to the Crossrail scheme in Glasgow, which is vital for unifying the city region’s rail network. Transport Scotland has actually demanded its removal from the city region plan, which would open up the land for the construction of housing.
I will avoid the theatrics that some others have used. The hon. Gentleman talks about the danger posed to Crossrail. Does he accept that, under a previous administration, Glasgow City Council granted permission for 800 houses where Crossrail would have gone? I do not think he is in strong territory.
I do not accept that at all. The high street curve area was protected until June last year, after the change in administration. It was actually Transport Scotland—[Interruption.] No, the planning application was not before that. I am the only Member of Parliament who raised an objection to that planning application, which went to the city council only last month. Crossrail was enabled in the city region development plan, but it was removed from the latest edition of the plan in June last year at the demand of Transport Scotland. That is why a planning application went in that threatens the delivery of the Crossrail scheme, which is a vital project for Glasgow. I urge all Glasgow city region Members of Parliament to get behind it. We need to protect and safeguard the route for Crossrail. It is a critical project that should be funded by the Glasgow city region city deal, and it is another example of how dysfunctional and disjointed the whole administration of the deal has been.
At a time when public money is tight, it is unacceptable that the involvement of two Governments—in Edinburgh and London—can lead to a stalemate in the progress of the Glasgow city deal and a failure to draw up and implement a strategy for investing the allocated funds. The Tories and the SNP must get a grip if our urban areas are ever to catch up with and exceed the ambition of their English peers.
In an evaluation of their progress in 2016, the Fraser of Allander Institute commented that the three city deals that existed in Scotland at the time
“could have an important impact in increasing urban productivity, and increasing the culture of partnership and innovation in these…city regions,”
but “many more steps remain,” and that for cities in Scotland to move forward,
“they need to be empowered—with additional roles, funding and competencies, because they will need and are best-placed to identify their infrastructure investment requirements, especially in transport and housing.”
My constituency is not lucky enough to have a city deal yet—they are still under negotiation in Clackmannanshire and, in the form of the Tay cities deal, in Perth and Kinross. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that devolution does not mean separate? Edinburgh should pass more powers down to local authorities and work constructively with Westminster, so that we get more transparency about these deals and actually get the money to the communities where it is needed sooner rather than later.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which was timely because I am just about to address the question of municipalism in Scotland—a great tradition that is sadly diminished.
To achieve those recommendations by the Fraser of Allander Institute, we need substantially greater powers to act at municipal level, which the Glasgow city deal shows are sorely lacking. It is fair to say that Glasgow has been progressively smothered by the process of devolution in the past 20 years. Edinburgh holds too much power. It sucks up power from other parts of the country, including Glasgow. The SNP has only exacerbated the problem by drastically cutting funding to local government at twice the rate the Scottish budget has been reduced. Rebranding the city council as a city government is just dressing mutton up as lamb, because without any substantive changes to Glasgow’s real political power it is nothing more than changing the letterhead on the city council stationery. We need to appraise honestly how devolution can better support our great cities towards more responsive, representative government, rather than increasingly concentrating power in Edinburgh.
The north of England has been invigorated by a multimillion pound investment and innovative development through its city deals. Historically Britain’s second city, Glasgow is now at risk of losing out in terms of power and investment compared with other big, regional cities in the UK. City regions such as Manchester and Liverpool have made great gains in funding, voice and influence in recent years, including through the introduction of directly elected metro mayoralties. That greater devolution of power is to be celebrated, and Glasgow, which is bigger than each of those cities in northern England, needs to learn from the recent experience of cities such as Manchester to bring more power and investment to our great city. We need to ensure that Glasgow, as one of the greatest cities in the world, and once the fourth-largest city in Europe, has a greater and distinctive voice within the UK. We should be exploring all avenues for how we increase our political clout to improve the lives of Glaswegians.
The city deal appears to be a temporary fix to underlying structural issues for funding the Glasgow city region, which over recent decades has been both ravaged by a decade of SNP cuts and undermined by the Tory break-up of what it saw as a troublesome Labour-led Strathclyde regional council in the 1990s. I hope that the debate will force the Government to provide much-needed clarity on the future progress of the longest-standing Scottish city deal, the Glasgow and Clyde Valley city region deal.
The UK Government need to be proactive in pushing for progress while putting pressure on the SNP Government in Holyrood to deliver their commitments. As has been mentioned in interventions, we need to establish unity of purpose to ensure that the right projects are prioritised so that Glasgow finally gets the vital, world-class infrastructure it needs to thrive as a global destination in the 21st century, without further delay and procrastination. The current deal clearly shows that we cannot trust the UK Government to deliver on their financial commitments, we cannot trust the Scotland Office to show leadership, and we cannot trust the Scottish Government to implement their commitments properly.
Is that not proof that the deal was not fully thought- through by the UK Government at the start? Instead, it was a pre-referendum bribe, with them throwing out the money without laying out what the outcomes were going to be.
I do not accept that it was done in that manner, cynically put as it was. I think it was put together with the best of intentions, but it has been managed incompetently. Both Parliaments and both Governments are to blame for the lack of oversight. I hope that both Parliaments will rediscover a spirit of co-operation on this issue and reappraise and reboot the city deal to ensure that we get the best effect for the people of Glasgow. I have been elected to do that, and I am going to ensure that that happens.
The hon. Gentleman is a good friend of mine, and I understand that, as the sole Labour MP in Glasgow—on a wafer-thin majority—he has a job to do. The SNP has been in administration in Glasgow for less than 12 months, while his party presided over the deal for three years. Is there no responsibility on the part of his colleagues in Glasgow city chambers?
Glasgow City Council has been pressing valiantly to deliver projects such as the Glasgow airport rail link, but it has been thwarted at every turn by Transport Scotland. Why? Because municipal power has been progressively ripped out of city councils across Scotland by the Scottish Government. [Interruption.] It happened in 2008, when SPT was denuded of any executive transport planning powers. It has the capacity to do it.
Order. It is great to have so much enthusiasm in the room, but I remind Members that any comments should be made through the Chair.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I shall conclude by putting two direct questions to the Minister. What will he do to ensure that city deals in Scotland are properly delivered and to ensure the deals bring the hoped-for benefits to the city regions? What discussion has he had with the Scottish Government about enhancing the Glasgow city region’s political power in concert with the city deal, as has happened in other UK cities to their benefit? Will he show us some of the leadership lacking in the Scotland Office by committing to raise those issues with the Scottish Government without delay?
It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing this hugely important debate. The Government welcome the opportunity to talk about the huge success that Scotland’s city deals are already delivering for all seven of the major cities in Scotland, and will deliver in future.
I am slightly disappointed that the hon. Gentleman is so upset that I am responding to the debate. I am the Minister for the northern powerhouse—for most people in the Chamber, I guess that is the far-southern powerhouse—but I am also Minister for local growth, and it is my cities and local growth team, on behalf of the Government, in partnership with the Secretary of State for Scotland and his civil servants, who have negotiated many of these city deals. I hope today to bring to the debate not just the experience we have had in government of negotiating city deals in Scotland but other experience.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the huge success of the English city devolution programme. We have seen huge steps forward in places such as the West Midlands, which now has a Mayor for its combined authority, as well as Liverpool and Manchester—and, in particular, the Tees Valley. There are important lessons we can learn across our United Kingdom, both from this debate and, more generally, about how devolution—taking real power, money and influence away from Westminster and returning it to the hands of people in local communities to drive forward their own growth—can transform our economy.
Before I get to the main part of the debate, I want to put on record my congratulations to Scotland’s rugby team, who absolutely battered England at Murrayfield on Saturday. I was there, and it was a great privilege. It was not a great result from my point of view, but it was good to be at the match. It shows that sometimes the best team wins, and the team with the best spirit also wins. I therefore congratulate Scotland on winning back the Calcutta cup—after 10 years.
I would like to celebrate the achievements and successes we have seen in our city deals. An additional £1 billion of UK Government investment and funding is going into local growth priorities in Scotland, which has been matched by £1 billion put forward by the Scottish Government, with additional investment from local authorities, universities and—let us not forget it, because it has not yet been mentioned in the debate—the private sector, which together brought forward a further £835 million. That shows that when city deals, and devolution and growth deals, are at their most successful, they are a partnership of equals between the UK Government, the Scottish Government, Scottish local authorities, the private sector and, of course, our colleagues in the public sector.
As we set out in our industrial strategy White Paper last November, the Government are committed to driving forward growth across the whole of the United Kingdom. It is about helping areas to achieve their full potential by building on local sector strengths that attract investment and supporting local businesses to grow. The city and growth deals that we have already negotiated and those that we have committed to negotiate in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are absolutely central to that ambition. Moreover, they show how the Government can work hand in hand with partners in the devolved Administrations across our United Kingdom and local authorities to deliver, in a co-ordinated way, real impacts for local economies.
The first Scottish city deal was agreed in 2014, three years after the then coalition Government launched the first groundbreaking English city deal. It was interesting to hear it referred to as a pre-referendum bribe. If SNP Members believe that—I do not believe it; the deal was about driving forward the city of Glasgow’s economy for the people who live there—I wonder why they signed up to it. Perhaps they can deal with that later.
The deals provide place-based solutions, building on local expertise to co-ordinate investment and policy, and interventions to help to drive economic growth. Recognising that city deals, as piloted in England, could boost local economies across our United Kingdom, Her Majesty’s Government and the Scottish Government agreed that the programme should be extended beyond England, to demonstrate our commitment to supporting dynamic businesses and local communities represented by devolved Administrations. We have agreed four deals across Scotland and are negotiating three more, meaning that we now have deals being either implemented or negotiated for each of Scotland’s great seven cities. We are also working on a cross-border deal between Scotland and England, referred to as the borderlands deal, which was confirmed in the most recent Budget, to see how we can drive forward the ambitions and desires of businesses in the borderlands area of our United Kingdom.
There has been a lot of talk specifically about city deals. On the Tay cities deal, which comes into my constituency, I just wanted to confirm that we will use as much pressure as possible to ensure that the deals cascade out into rural economies as well, because they need just as much support.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We should never forget that the majority of people in this country do not live in a city, but in towns, villages and rural communities. Therefore, every city deal and every growth deal that the Government negotiate, regardless of where it may be in our United Kingdom, has to be about driving forward the economies of areas outside cities as well as in cities. I happily confirm that the hopes and desires of her constituents who do not live in a city will be part of that deal.
The Minister touched on the borderlands growth deal. He will know where I am going with this: the Ayrshire growth deal was on the table before the borderlands growth deal, which now seems to be going forward. At the last Housing, Communities and Local Government questions he committed to meeting the backers of the Ayrshire growth deal. Has he progressed that meeting yet?
We are in conversations about dates that work. I have already met with the representatives of the Ayrshire growth deal. As I committed to in the Chamber following the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am happy to meet with them again to discuss what we can take forward and how we can work together on proposals that they may have for an Ayrshire growth deal. I will keep him informed about my diary, but I hope that he will not have to wait too long for the second meeting. I know that discussions are ongoing with my colleagues in the Scotland Office.
An important aspect of all the city deals is that their content cannot be imposed top-down by the UK Government or the devolved Administration. They need to be promoted by local partners and draw on the expertise in the local communities, because such deals work best where they are ground-up and locally driven.
I turn to the achievements of some of the city deals that we have already agreed. The Glasgow and Clyde Valley deal was the first Scottish deal agreed, and included a joint £1 billion investment fund from both the UK and the Scottish Governments to support growth across the city region through a regionally controlled investment fund. Good progress continues to be made, with a number of key milestones already achieved. Significant funding—£209 million—has been approved, and many projects have been successfully completed. One example is the positive investment—some £89.3 million —of city deal funding to deliver the canal and north element of the Sighthill regeneration project, which is one of the biggest of its type outside London. I could not put the difference that the project will make better than the hon. Member for Glasgow North East. In one of his recent tweets, he said that the Sighthill regeneration project is
“an incredible legacy for my constituency.”
I accept that the Sighthill transformational regeneration area is a wonderful example of the city deal in action, but my point was that, given the lack of political power compared with the powers given to other city regions in the UK, we cannot progress critical infrastructure projects such as transport because those powers are no longer in the locus of the city region. Only when we have the powers to match the investment will we see real progress in areas such as infrastructure. Does the Minister not accept that we are seeing a lack of progress in those areas?
I do not accept that the only point that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make is that the region wants further political powers. He set out that there had been a lack of progress in the Glasgow city deal. I have pointed out a project that he himself has said will be
“an incredible legacy for my constituency.”
Some £89.3 million has already been drawn down into that project. That ably makes the point that the city deal is making progress, and shows the commitment of both the UK and Scottish Governments to driving forward the economy of Glasgow.
The city deal investment in the Sighthill regeneration project, which the hon. Gentleman acknowledges is a good legacy for his constituency, will fund connections between that area and the city centre. It will provide a significant economic boost to north Glasgow. In addition to the regionally managed investment fund, as part of the Glasgow city deal the Government have committed funding to specific innovation projects across the city region. Those projects have already begun to support small and medium-sized businesses with high-growth potential as part of our strategy to back Glasgow’s life sciences sector.
Among those projects is the world-leading Imaging Centre of Excellence, which is part of a £64 million investment in stratified medicine at the new south Glasgow hospitals campus. Again, that part of the city deal is drawn-down, completed and open, showing that the city deal is already delivering for the people of Glasgow. It is a unique medical research facility, which will translate science into economic and patient benefits for the city of Glasgow, Scotland and the UK. The project will bring 396 new high-skilled, high-wage, high-value jobs to the city region over a seven-year period, and an independent assessor believes that it will contribute at least £88 million to the local economy—another demonstration of how the city deal in Glasgow is already delivering for people on the ground.
On the comment made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East about the delay to the rail link with the airport, I share his disappointment that the Scottish Government have failed to make proper progress on that. It is already fully funded from the city deal agreed gainshare fund. The money is available and ready to be drawn down. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the message from today’s debate that there is certainly ambition from the UK Government, who are calling for the project, in partnership with Transport Scotland, to be brought forward as quickly as possible to deliver not just for the people of Glasgow, but for the wider Scottish region.
I note that the transport woes in the city of Glasgow are not isolated. Trains between Edinburgh and Glasgow have been both reduced in frequency and halved in their length, because the lease is about to run out on the diesel trains that currently ply that line. I wonder whether one solution could be to take the steam train from the Bo’ness and Kinneil line to supplement the transport between Glasgow and Edinburgh. That should not be a solution that any of us want, but given the incompetence with which the Scottish Government seem to be managing that line, it may be the only one available.
On the subject of transport, the £120 million investment in the city bypass in my constituency of Midlothian is welcome, but does the Minister agree that it must be a priority, as the majority of people working in Edinburgh are now living in Midlothian—the fastest-growing constituency in Scotland?
The hon. Lady makes a good point on behalf of her constituents, and I am sure that she will continue to drive that argument here in Westminster in representing them.
We have built on the success of the Glasgow deal. In 2016, we agreed a deal for both Aberdeen and Inverness. In Aberdeen, we now have the £180 million Oil and Gas Technology Centre—an industry-leading research and knowledge organisation, which is fast establishing its reputation.
Does the Minister accept that the Aberdeen and shire city deal actually fell £254 million short on the UK Government side, compared with the Scottish Government side, and can he explain why the estimates document shows that £72 million is being surrendered to Her Majesty’s Treasury?
On the subject of Aberdeen, I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would be celebrating the fact that the centre has invested in more than 70 projects in just 12 months to develop technology that could transform the North sea. I think it shows that we cannot cover the success of Scottish city deals in a half-hour debate. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to have another debate to cover Aberdeen, Inverness and other areas.
Question put and agreed to.
UK Fisheries Policy
[Mr Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered future UK fisheries policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I am sure right hon. and hon. Members know that the demise of our fishing industry under European Union membership was frequently discussed in the lead-up to the referendum in June 2016. Leaving the EU is a huge opportunity for UK fishing and for our fishermen, who need a positive vision of what can be achieved as a wholly sovereign nation. As we continue to debate and discuss what types of agreements and frameworks we should put in place for access to trade, we should not forget one of the easiest wins we can have from this whole process: taking back control of our fishing waters and handing them back to UK fishermen.
I commend the Minister, who gave great support to farmers and fishermen leading up to the referendum and continues to show diligent support to the fishing and farming communities. It is great to see the environment leading the way in Parliament and in the media, and I know the Minister will be fighting the corner for farmers and fishermen over at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, alongside the Secretary of State. I also know that he is currently working toward a new fisheries policy to be published in the next few months, and I hope that the contributions from right hon. and hon. Members today will help to shape that debate.
Brexit and fisheries in general should be considered in two phases: the implementation period and the end state. I will put on record my concerns about how an implementation or transition period could harm fishermen if not done correctly. Ideally, at 11 pm on 29 March 2019, we need to have absolute and 100% control of our fisheries, without it being part of any implementation or transition deal. If not, we could lock ourselves into future EU treaties and regulations, including the discard ban, which could see many of the boats that currently work in the UK going bankrupt.
One of the hardest things to see, as a member of the public, is dead fish being thrown back into the ocean due to a dysfunctional and rigid EU quota-based system. The discard ban could have huge ramifications for our fisheries. If, however, the Government enter into a transitional or implementation period that includes fisheries, there must be a clear and final termination clause so that the UK fishing fleet is not part of any EU treaty or regulation. We cannot be in a situation where we leave the EU for a few seconds and then join through the back door. I urge the Minister to stress those points to the Department for Exiting the European Union to ensure that fisheries are protected and treated separately.
On future fisheries policy, we need a system that no longer means our fishermen throwing tonnes of fish back into our oceans and our fishing fleet restricted by arbitrary quotas. We need a system based on sound science, and one which effectively monitors how many fish are being caught.
Does my hon. Friend agree that any future fisheries policy must have buy-in from experts who work in the industry? Even I would not dictate to fishermen how the stocks should be managed. The fishermen themselves know best, and they should have input into a management system.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am sure she agrees that we need to look at the science, Government legislation and the industry. A holistic approach must be taken to ensure that our fishing industry is protected.
As I said, we need a system based on sound science, and one that effectively monitors how many fish are being caught, where they are being caught and what is being caught, so we can get an up-to-date and clear picture of the state of the current fishery and the health of the fish stocks within it. Throwing fish back into the sea gives distorted information and it is not good for conservation or for public perception. Only by landing everything we catch can we properly monitor our fisheries and implement appropriate fisheries measures to preserve stocks.
I know the Minister is aware of the work currently being undertaken by Fishing for Leave, the organisation that has set up a new fisheries model. I have met with the group recently, and it has shown me its proposals for an effort control system and a hybrid system. The organisation has modelled it, and it shows the principles of a time-at-sea model and a quota-based system. I will briefly explain what that means.
A time-at-sea model is already in place in places such as the Faroe Islands, but I do not believe we should look to replicate that exact model because a time-at-sea model generally allows for a race to the fish. Vessels therefore target the most valuable species closer to shore. Under Fishing for Leave’s proposals, we could have a system whereby fishermen were allocated an amount of net soak time over the course of a year and would be allowed a flexible catch composition quota target, which would stipulate how many of a specific species they should aim to catch as a percentage of their overall catch.
The clever part of that model is that the skipper, if he exceeds his catch limit, will have time at sea reduced equivalent to the value of the wrong species being caught. It is almost a reverse compensation measure—the skipper will not want to lose much time at sea, so it will be an incentive for him to go out and catch the species he wants to target. If after a couple of days at sea the skipper has exhausted his weekly allocation of hours used as time to compensate for that particular species, he will be on shore and losing time, and less fishing effort will be exerted on the overall fishery. That means that he will be able to land a nice, profitable catch of fish, spend more time at home with his family and to incur lower diesel and fuel costs at sea, and that the scientists will have lots of reliable data on which to base their information.
Under the current quota system, a boat could be out to sea for a number of days, trying to target a specific species and throwing away many dead fish of the wrong species. Further to that, under the proposed EU discard ban, a vessel would have to tie up after it exhausted the smallest quota number. Seafish modelling has shown that 60% of the UK’s fishing fleet would go bankrupt if we continued to enforce quotas while also enforcing a discard ban.
The Fishing for Leave model avoids the need for a discard ban and the risks that that would pose to fishermen. It also proposes countermeasures to ensure that some species are protected. By landing everything that is caught and monitoring where the boat is, we can harvest live data and know what is being caught and where. That will allow fishing authorities to determine accurately which species they need to protect or which areas need to be closed. When a boat goes to sea, it will have not only allocations of time and flexible catch composition quotas with catch limit sizes, but live data streaming telling it where it can fish, which species can be targeted and which authorities are responsible for developing those targets.
Of course, to make a time-at-sea model work, there must be a level playing field so that fishermen are measured by how long their nets are in the water. Within the model, that is known as net soak time. I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) introduced a days-at-sea model when it was trialled previously. I believe that that model was flawed because it did not include the net soak time data, so we were not able to see that boats were targeting species close to the shore rather than those species they were supposed to be going for.
Is not one of the big wins from this excellent scheme that we will not only land and eat more fish and have more output, but catch far fewer fish? That is great for the fish as well as for the fishermen and the fish-eaters.
I will come on to that point as I get through the rest of my speech—my right hon. Friend has pre-empted one of my thought processes.
Not only will boats not overfish inshore, as has happened in the Faroe Islands, but it will also bring another significant point to fruition: the days-at-sea proposal tended to lead to the targeting of fish within estuaries. We have seen significant pressure on our estuarine species. There is a much wider point here about estuaries and the ecosystems that exist within them.
I congratulate the Cornwall Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority on implementing a netting ban in a protected area in Cornwall to try to protect some of the species there. People target fish inshore because they face so much competition for the fish in the offshore reaches—they may not have negotiated as much of a quota as they think they are entitled to.
Under the time-at-sea model, all nets would have net soak time sensors, which would measure how long nets are in the water. As soon as the nets are deployed, the sensor would kick in and an on-board computer would start measuring how long the net is in the water for. That would allow fishermen to travel to their desired location without having their time deducted. I understand that the Secretary of State saw that technology on a recent visit to North Shields. When a haul is brought back on board, the crew can record every fish that is caught, and provide live accurate data for the authorities to calculate what the fishery looks like, creating a picture of stock sizes, species, maturity and sustainable yield.
Currently, under the common fisheries policy, thousands of tonnes of fish are thrown back into the water. That means wasted time, effort and cost for crews, millions of dead fish not being put to market, and less data for scientists and authorities. If we implement the model, I believe it can only be good for our fishery. Fishermen would hit the targets that they need to be viable, because they will be able to land everything they have caught. Meanwhile, the total number of fish being caught would be lower, because we would not be in a situation in which millions of fish are caught, killed and thrown back as fishermen pursue species for which they have not hit their quota.
I want us to conserve stocks and maintain a healthy and diverse fishery. This hybrid model can achieve that. I urge the Minister and his officials to meet Fishing for Leave to look at its model and the website it has built, which shows the process of how a fisherman can record catches and work within the current system. That said, it should not be the only fisheries management tool we should be look at—we should look at different models that could be appropriate to determine what is in Britain’s best interests as we fish our own waters again. Further to that, I urge the Minister to consider holding trials so he can pit all the models against each other. That would give a much better picture of the models, and we could see which was preferred and how it needed to be adapted to meet our needs.
That leads me on to how we can revitalise our fishing industry. This is a much wider point. As we travel around the UK, we see many former fishing communities, and we see at first hand the damage done by the common fisheries policy. I believe that the UK economy has been unbalanced for years. Globalisation has benefited urban areas, but that wealth rarely trickled down to rural coastal communities. That disparity was highlighted by the referendum result, but we now have an opportunity to rebalance UK plc. Through an effective fisheries policy, we can create jobs, increase productivity in coastal communities and bring life back to some of the coastal towns that have suffered.
It is also important that we consider the effects of post-Brexit trade deals on our fishing industry. At the moment, up to 60% of the fish caught in UK waters are exported to EU countries and further afield. I should imagine that the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade, which will oversee the future terms of our trade in fish, will look at this important policy and take into account how the industry exports.
It is right that we have a period of time and a policy in place that accommodates foreign boats in British waters and, likewise, British boats in European waters. In the spirit of co-operation with Europe, we should not want to shut the door on them immediately, but we should reach some sort of agreement where all our catches are landed through the UK.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the Department starts to plan now for the fisheries protection part of the regaining of our waters, and creates that level of support and robustness in future, so that fishermen can have confidence that the UK will be able to support the final position?
I absolutely agree on enforcement. I am sure the Minister listened to that and will respond in his own way. I understand that we have not been particularly good at enforcing our own fishery. Our fishermen need that confidence to move forward.
On that point, some very large trawlers make their way into the Irish sea. They start at the very southern tip of the Irish sea and work their way right up. They are not necessarily from Great Britain—I am talking about the Spanish trawlers that come in and lift everything out of the sea in that area, leaving absolutely nothing after they have left. They can trawl right up to the beaches. We need protection zones within this policy.
I absolutely agree with that, too. The hon. Gentleman very well sums up the conversations that I have with my fishermen, who also feel the pressure from foreign boats off the 12-mile zone.
It is important to me that, when Britain takes control of its waters, it sets its own terms of access. We want our fishermen to be confident that, in post-Brexit Britain, we will have control of our territorial waters and that we will be able to export our fish to European countries and further afield without tariffs. If we leave the EU without a trade deal and are under World Trade Organisation rules, the tariffs for exporting seafood to the EU generally range from 0% to 24%. Both fresh cod and prawns currently attract a 12% tariff. For European economic area countries such as Norway, cod has a zero tariff, while prawns have a 12% tariff.
If we get a free trade deal, tariff barriers will not be a problem. I would certainly welcome that. On the other hand, we may face a situation in which the EU will settle for zero tariffs only if we give it some access to British waters. That question will need to be considered very carefully by the Minister and the fishing industry in general.
There is a disparity between the amount of fish we import and the amount we export. We currently export a staggering amount of fish and shellfish that could perfectly well be eaten within the UK. Approximately 52% of the seafood that enters the UK supply chain is imported from abroad or is landed by foreign boats. For example, nearly all spider crabs caught off the Cornish coastline are currently exported to Europe, with fishermen exporting 98% of all the crabs we catch. I want to know what is wrong with those crabs. Brown crabs are a fantastic species to eat, and we should celebrate the spider crab, which is a fantastic-tasting species—many restaurants in France regularly serve spider crabs. Likewise, we catch a fantastic collection of cuttlefish that is also exported. We must continue to import and export to serve demand from Europe, but there is certainly a case to be made for more British-caught produce.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered the problem of non-tariff barriers? I sit on the Exiting the European Union Committee. We were in Brussels last week, and the Norwegian ambassador was very keen to impress upon us that one main reason why Norway is in the single market is to avoid non-tariff barriers on its fish exports.
I take that point. Tariffs need to be looked at within the context of our Brexit policies right across the board, rather than just for fishing or agriculture.
If it is ultimately the case that the EU imposes tariffs on our seafood, there is an argument for Britain to become much more self-sustaining. We need to broaden our range and knowledge of seafood and encourage its consumption. I therefore urge the Minister to consider drawing up a strategy, either within a future fisheries policy or a separate policy, on how to encourage more British people to embrace seafood and try the different ranges of fish and shellfish that are caught on their doorstep.
The Minister is aware of the practice of electric pulse fishing, which is undertaken by Dutch trawlers. Given the likely negative impact that it is having on our fishery and our ecosystem, will he assure me that, under a future British fisheries policy, electric pulse fishing will be completely banned?
Taking back control of our fisheries was a huge issue during the referendum, but it has since taken a back seat. I hope we can put it back in the spotlight. The 29 March 2019 deadline is fast approaching, and we need a system that is ready to go. We need to be out of the common fisheries policy and out from under the auspices of the EU.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent speech. One issue that the fishing community are very concerned about is the continued use of European boats in our waters if it is not made absolutely clear when we leave that we have our fishing waters back. I believe there is a continued-use element whereby they could claim that they were still allowed to fish here. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister could inform us, or perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) knows, how far that part of the negotiations has got and how clear it is that when we leave, we get our fishing waters back.
My understanding is that, once we leave, we fall back on the UN convention on the law of the sea, which means that we control our 200-mile territorial zone, but I would refer that question to the Minister to be answered in full. As we leave the common fisheries policy and the auspices of the EU, we should have 100% control of our waters, with our own fishing system in place that better serves our fishermen and is fairer to our fishery.
Order. I intend to call the first Opposition spokesman no later than 3.25 pm. With that in mind, I will not set a formal time limit yet, because you are all such good and obedient Members that you will keep your comments, I hope, to just below four minutes. I call Mr Jim Shannon.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your authority, Mr Paisley. I did not expect to be called first. I was hoping for more than four minutes, but that is by the bye; I will work to your guidelines.
I thank the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for initiating the debate and giving this chance to those of us who represent constituencies where fishing is important. I know that every fifth word in this place seems to be “Brexit”. That term was unknown five years ago, but now the very state of the UK depends on the success of Brexit and the negotiating team. That is one job that I would not want to have, and I thank those who are so diligently putting in the work to make the exit from the EU as smooth and rewarding as possible. I look forward to the Minister’s contribution today. I know that it will be very positive, as it always is. Who would have thought when we joined what was purported to be no more than a trade and customs group that we would be in this position today? The lesson is clear: sovereignty is easy to let slip through our fingers, but infinitely harder to regain.
One of the industries that have been worst affected by a biased Europe is fishing. I had in my area a tremendous working fishing village in Portavogie, with two fish-producing factories and 120 boats. That is now down to 70. Why did that happen? Because of the European bureaucracy imposing quotas and days at sea—all the things that made fishing not work. At the same time, the Irish sea abounds with cod, yet all the scientists in Brussels, who never get off a warm seat, have the audacity to tell us that there is no cod there when there clearly is. The people who know that are the people who fish the sea. There are, therefore, very big issues to address.
When the nation voted to leave, the fishermen rejoiced. Indeed, every man, woman and unborn child in Portavogie voted to leave, because there was no doubt that that was what they wanted to happen. Nobody in Portavogie wanted to stay in Europe, and my constituency clearly reflected that opinion because a majority voted to leave. Our seas will be ours again. We will be able to thrive. We can pass our trade on to our families. We can hire the wonderful Filipino fishermen, who so greatly enhance our crews with their skill, dedication and commitment to our community, without the impossible red tape that forces us to take on European workers who do not have the same skill set or mindset. We can sell our products to our people at decent, affordable prices, which will benefit the restaurants and the consumers alike. However, the March 2019 deadline is striding towards us, and as yet our fishermen have none of the certainty that they crave and, indeed, deserve. Again, we look to the Minister for some confirmation in that regard.
I, along with many others in the Chamber, have seen the letter sent to the Prime Minister by the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation. The letter clearly outlines the needs of the fishing community and the villages and towns that rely on that community. It is crystal clear about the need for an immediate red line around our waters and the ability for fishermen to be just that: men who fish, and women who fish, without being used as political pawns. I for one do not see the families of Portavogie and surrounding areas or the families of Kilkeel or Ardglass as expendable. I see them as people who voted to leave, along with the majority of the United Kingdom, and who therefore deserve to leave at the same time as everyone else, in March 2019. No one has been fooled by the most recent Brussels fishing convention, which saw our quota increase, just in the last year. The fact is that Europe puts the true Europeans first. We are leaving and we are looking forward to the day when we do just that.
I am standing in this Chamber today to say that we cannot give a sop to the Europeans. For too long, they have controlled British waters with anti-British policies. That must end in March 2019. Would that it could end in March 2018. Boy, that would be an even bigger day. The cries of joy and relief would be heard from the most easterly port of Ballyhalbert right across the Irish sea to the coast of Scotland, where the Scottish nationalists would also want to take note of the message that was coming through very clearly. Their fishing communities would be echoing those cries.
Fishing is not a sop; it has been the lifeblood of coastal communities and other, supplementary industries and it has the potential to be so again. We must extricate ourselves from the EU muddle and do what is right. Leave means leave now, and that is exactly what we are demanding of the Minister.
There is growing concern among the members of the fishing community in west Cornwall, including the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation, about the terms of the UK Government’s proposed implementation period for Brexit and the potentially disastrous implications for the fishing industry. That is why I give particular credit to my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for securing such a timely debate for our fishing industry. We never seem to have enough time to discuss this very important subject.
It is imperative that the UK Government confirm and demonstrate their commitment to leaving the common fisheries policy, and that commitment can be clearly demonstrated only by ensuring that fishing is not part of any transition or implementation deal and by the UK taking full responsibility for British waters on 29 March 2019. The entire UK fishing industry and its many supporters would consider a failure by the UK immediately to assert control of UK waters and manage fisheries as an independent coastal state extremely damaging. It would certainly be unacceptable to the Cornish fishermen I know and meet regularly.
It is clear that it would be a complete disaster for the UK to hand responsibility for its waters straight back to Brussels at the point of Brexit. In fact, it would be worse than an extension of the status quo, because we would be powerless to prevent French, Belgian, Dutch and other EU fleets from continuing to operate in UK waters and catch the fisheries resource there, under rules that they had decided without the UK having any say at all. The sector has been consistent and unambiguous in its expectation that full control over access to UK waters and management of our fisheries as an independent coastal state genuinely begins from March 2019, when we withdraw from the EU and CFP. An implementation period may make sense for some business sectors, but for the fisheries sector it would be disastrous.
The Cornish Fish Producers Organisation has set out a number of real and important reasons why fishing should not be part of a transition or implementation deal with the EU. I am sure that many hon. Members in the Chamber are aware of the things that the organisation has said. Logically, fisheries jurisdiction, access rights and quota shares should be dealt with separately from trade arrangements when the UK’s legal status in relation to fisheries changes on 29 March 2019. Norway, for example, maintains access to the EU single market under specific agreed arrangements, but it manages the fisheries within its own exclusive economic zone and enters into annual agreements on the management of shared stocks and quota exchanges as an independent coastal state. It is patently obvious that once the principle of the status quo on quota shares and access has been conceded for a transitional deal, the EU will use the same tactics and leverage when the UK seeks to negotiate a long-term trade deal with the EU. Fishing will again be a sacrificed pawn, irrespective of our legal status as an independent coastal state.
At the point at which the UK leaves the EU, in March 2019, UK Ministers and officials will no longer be party to decisions within any of the European institutions, including those that set quotas and make other rules on EU fisheries. It is an extreme understatement to say that it would be completely prejudicial to the interests of the UK fishing industry to tie us into fisheries management decisions in which we in the UK are mere rule takers. As an independent coastal state, the UK would be expected to take its seat in international fisheries negotiations, including those with Norway, other coastal states and the EU. Even the European Commission recognises that separate, bespoke arrangements will be required to include the UK in the decisions when setting total allowable catches in the annual year-end negotiations.
There is no legal or fisheries management reason why the UK should accept any precondition or artificial constraint on its right to negotiate the best deal that it can, including on access arrangements and quota share. I accept that a one-off, stand-alone arrangement for fishing in 2019 might be necessary, given that the UK leaves a quarter of the way through the fishing year, but it is essential that we leave the CFP this time early next year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing this debate. It is an all too infrequent opportunity to discuss the health of our fishing industry.
This is a moment of great significance for our fishing communities. For decades the operation of the common fisheries policy has been centralised, bureaucratic and unresponsive. We now have the opportunity to do things better. Other hon. Members have spoken about what will happen at the point of departure from the European Union—29 March 2019. It is a matter on which I have questioned the Prime Minister twice and I have had a somewhat less than unambiguous answer. Will the Minister make clear what is going to happen? Other hon. Members have suggested that 29 March will be the end of it and we will be completely out of the common fisheries policy. The position of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation is that, having signed up to a year’s arrangements in December 2018, we would then honour those for the remainder of that period, which they call a bridging period, from March until December. That would offer the industry some of the certainty and smooth regulation that it craves.
It has to be clearly understood at the very heart of Government that any arrangement that would mean that UK fisherman continued to be bound by quota or total allowable catch arrangements made at the December Agriculture and Fisheries Council, which they had not been part of, would be totally unacceptable. We need to hear that from the Minister today. We need to hear it in the clearest possible terms.
I would like to hear the Minister’s view on the constitutional framework that is in place under the devolution settlement. Decisions currently made on fisheries management in Europe should, for my fishermen in Shetland and Orkney, be made in Edinburgh. That is the constitutional framework that comes from the various Scotland Acts. There is no good reason why we should anticipate anything different.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall spoke about the possibility of moving to an effort control system—a mixed quota and effort control system based on days at sea. These are all interesting ideas worthy of consideration. A move away from the quota system would be immensely problematic for the fishermen in my constituency and, I suspect, for those represented by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid). Many in the Scottish fleet have invested hundreds millions of pounds over the years in relation to the quota system. If there is to be any change, it has to be made with consummate care.
We can have any system in the world that we want, but it will fail if it does not do two things: first, if it does not have the co-operation and confidence of the fishing industry itself; secondly, if it does not operate on the basis of science that is properly reflective of the stocks that are in the sea. One of the big failings of the common fisheries policy in recent years is a growing divergence between scientists and fishermen, because much of the data that are used in making quota and total allowable catch decisions is two years old by the time that it is implemented. There has to be some quick and dirty way that that data can be analysed and used much more effectively to inform decision making. There is a great deal more that I would like to say, but time is not on my side. The important questions are already with the Minister. I look forward to hearing his answers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing this debate.
Lowestoft in my constituency was previously the fishing capital of the southern North sea; today it is a pale shadow of its former self. Brexit provides an opportunity to revitalise fishing off the East Anglian coast, and to maximise the economic and social benefits that the industry can bring to local communities and businesses in ports such as Lowestoft. I shall briefly outline the three ingredients required to bring about this renaissance, for which the forthcoming fisheries Bill must provide.
First, East Anglian fisherman must be given the opportunity to catch more fish. The region’s catch sector predominantly comprises the inshore fleet which, as has been well documented, does not get a fair slice of the cake. Moreover, we suffer from the worst excesses of the flagship debacle, with six vessels of the Lowestoft Fish Producers Organisation never coming near the port and landing their catches in the Netherlands and in Peterhead.
If the quota system is to continue, we need a radical reallocation in favour of locally based fisherman, so that they can earn a fair living and the full benefit of their hard work, often carried out in extremely harsh conditions, can be secured for the ports and communities in which they live and work. Secondly, going hand in hand with landing more fish in East Anglian ports, we need to invest in the infrastructure, skills and supply-chain businesses in those ports and the surrounding areas. While in many respects it is surprising how much of this supporting sector remains in Lowestoft and other East Anglian ports, my concern is that it does not have the capacity to cope with a significant increase in landing. The European Maritime and Fisheries Fund runs until 2020. Beyond that date it is necessary for the Government to assess the likely needs of the industry on a regional basis, then make the necessary funds available for a wide range of projects.
The research work to establish what is needed in East Anglia is now under way. The level of funding should at least match the current EU structural funds for fishing. It represents a good investment in UK plc. It will secure a good deal for coastal communities, providing a more diverse and secure economic base. It will help to rebalance the national economy in favour of areas that have suffered a great deal in recent decades. Finally, it is necessary to put in place a management system that has the full confidence and respect of all those working in the industry. This system must be based on science and it should be local, sustainable and collaborative.
In conclusion, we have a great opportunity to revitalise a uniquely British industry for the benefit of local communities that feel that they have been dispossessed and ignored for too long. This task will not be easy, as the industry differs in its make-up and needs around the country. We require a national policy framework that has the flexibility to respond to different demands, so as to allow the industry to flourish locally, all around the UK coast. I look forward to welcoming the Minister to Lowestoft next month, so that he can set out his vision for this national framework, and so that locally we can set about the task of providing that local plan that will enable the industry again to play a leading role in the East Anglian coastal economy.
Thank you, Mr Aldous—top of the class. I call Huw Merriman.
Thank you, Mr Paisley. It is a pleasure to be called to speak. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) for securing this debate.
If ever there was an industry that showed us the benefits of the UK leaving the European Union, it is the fisheries industry. In 2015, trawlers from EU member states took 683,000 tonnes from UK waters, whereas the UK fleet took 111,000 tonnes from member states’ waters, so we can clearly see the disparity. In the English channel, which is near my constituency, 84% of the cod quota is given to the French, leaving just 9% to the UK. The Danish trawling fleet takes 85% of all its fish from UK waters, so this is a fantastic opportunity that we should embrace.
Unfortunately, the inshore waters off of East Sussex, which I represent, have barely any fish. For that reason, I support the bid from the marine conversation zone for a new zone to be set up for Beachy Head East, which would run from Beachy Head lighthouse to Hastings pier. It has the huge support of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). That area of water, which would run out for six nautical miles, is rich in marine biodiversity, but unfortunately the trawlers that have taken their catch have also taken absolutely everything else. That was brought home to us locally when a sea angling competition caught no sea bass whatever, despite that being the target of the catch. Although I am hugely optimistic for our policy post Britain leaving the European Union, I ask the Minister to note the words, “Beachy Head East marine conservation zone application” and the support that I want to press upon him, because the reality is, unless we protect and preserve our stock, there will be nothing there for future generations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
Brexit creates a unique and golden opportunity to rejuvenate a multibillion pound industry for our nation. It is an opportunity, should we successfully grasp it, to create a sustainable and successful fishing industry such as those of Norway, Iceland and the Faroes. I am sure all coastal Members received a communication from the Minister with responsibility for coastal communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), about round five of the coastal communities fund, totalling £40 million. That is hugely welcome and I hope to promote bids from South Thanet, but we have in our coastal communities, on our doorsteps, especially my own, the ability to bring real added value to communities without additional help from the Government, welcome as it is.
A fishing industry that in 1950 employed 48,000 people is now down to just 12,000 people today. An added lunacy is that this country, described by Aneurin Bevan in 1945 as an island
“made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish”,
now imports 238,000 tonnes of fish a year worth £1.3 billion. We have a trade deficit in fish alone of more than a quarter of a billion pounds. Whichever way we measure the CFP, it has been an environmental, ecological and financial disaster. In 2012, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee found that 1.7 million tonnes of good fish were discarded annually across the EU: some 23% of the catch. In a world of want, that represents not only a moral outrage but an ecological disgrace. If the CFP is bad for our industry, it is even worse for our fish.
I do not know how the Fisheries Minister manages to be so cheerful when he goes to Brussels every December. I would guess he doesn’t. We face a total allowable catch allocation of quotas that bears little relation to what is on the ground. I speak to my local fishermen and they say there is an abundance of thornback ray, which is lumped together in the EU-wide skates and rays analysis as a whole. The EU considers skates and rays to be at risk, so our quota is remarkably low.
We have had problems with sea bass. A lot of my local fishermen who have not been able to catch sea bass have undertaken recreational fishing by taking day anglers out. In the first six months of the year, we are not even allowed to catch and release, let alone catch and keep. My fleet in South Thanet in Ramsgate is in the under 10-metre class. I propose that it receive the most light touch regulations, if not wide-ranging exemptions. It is completely environmentally friendly. It barely dents the stocks and it presents the most benefit to coastal communities. Such fleets represent 70% of the UK fleet, employ 65% of those working in UK fishing, yet they receive 4% of the total quota.
I fully support the effort control system proposed by Fishing for Leave, and I hope the Minister and the Secretary of State will look at that. What we do not want during the implementation period is to somehow get dragged along with a perpetual CFP. We have the opportunity for a Brexit dividend. We have an opportunity to take back control of our seas and to rejuvenate our local fishing communities. I call on the Government to exempt fishing from any transition deal. Really importantly, we need unilaterally to ban pulse beaming, which has been catastrophic on spawning areas, particularly against our demersal species.
I am not imposing a formal time limit, but I ask Members to try to keep their speeches short.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I will try to keep my speech as brief as I can. Fortunately, many hon. and right hon. Members have already said a lot of what I was going to say. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing today’s debate. It is great to see such a large turnout.
Now is an exciting time for British fishing. As we move through the process of leaving the EU and the CFP, Brexit provides a sea of opportunity for the fishing industry, but we need to maintain stability and security for our fishermen in the short term. Any radical shift in policy taken at this stage must be very carefully considered, and we should look to best practice abroad when deliberating on the way forward.
It was interesting to hear the example of the Faroe Islands, which I understand are moving away from the current effort-based system because they believe it has proven to be a contributory factor to the decline of their stocks. As I understand it, they depart from the effort-based system on 1 January 2019, as agreed by their Parliament last year. The Faroese Government stated:
“Small fishing vessels which conduct coastal fisheries on a smaller scale will, however, continue to base their activity on annually allocated fishing days.”
It is a hybrid approach that might be appropriate in some cases.
It is worth noting the great success that the Scottish fleet has had recently in rebuilding the number of stocks, including North sea cod. That has all been achieved within the current quota-based system. There has been broad agreement over the past few months on both sides of the debate that if we are to move towards an effort-based system, it should be piloted first on a small-scale fishery. If that shows promising results, it would surely confirm once and for all whether that is a way forward.
Iceland uses an effort-based system only for some stocks, specifically lumpfish and sea urchins. All other fishing is operated on a rights-based system. Effort-based systems are viewed over there as a useful way to manage small-scale targeted fisheries, not large-scale mixed fisheries. Of course, around the United Kingdom we have one of the largest, if not the largest, mixed fisheries in the world. Because of that, it is important to recognise that not all fisheries are made equal. Mixed fisheries in the northern North sea are vastly different from fisheries in other parts of Scotland, let alone the rest of the UK.
I want us to continue with the drive towards regionalisation that the UK Government have previously supported in a European context. Why stop at Edinburgh, for example, when it comes to Scotland? Where exactly we draw the line is something we will have further discussions about as we go through the process of leaving the EU and the CFP, but ideally the resource should always be managed by those closest to it, and, as other hon. Members have said, with the input of those who know the fisheries best: the fishermen themselves. I would like to see all fisheries managed at the point most local to the fishery, with the exception of some high-level decisions that will need to be taken at a UK-wide level, especially as we become a fully independent coastal state.
I will try to be as brief as my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), Mr Paisley.
As I have said, any management system must have buy-in from the industry and must also be flexible enough to allow for massive fluctuations in stocks, such as the massive fluctuation in the bass stocks that we saw in the south-west this year. At the end of the day, fishermen cannot tell what is swimming into their net. They capture bass. If they cannot land the fish, they get discarded on the sea bed, dead, and that does not help anybody, particularly with the conservation of fish stocks. The system must also be able to accommodate mixed-species capture in a mixed fishery, such as we have in the south-west, to allow utilisation on board boats of all stocks that are kept and also to meet our obligations under article 62 of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. We should utilise the maximum amount of scientifically approved stocks for the benefit of the United Kingdom fleet.
We joined the European Union at a time when I was connected to the industry, and I look to the Minister to provide me and the United Kingdom’s fisheries with the assurance that we shall not sacrifice access to resources to buy access to a market, which is what happened at that time. We have to put right the wrong that took place. I want the Minister to provide me with that assurance, as well as the assurance that on 29 March 2019 we shall leave the common fisheries policy. I fully accept the possibility that we will have to allow an implementation period. We owe that not only to British fishermen but to our European partners.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the London agreement provisions must be included as well, and they must not hang over?
As I understand it, we are leaving the London convention of 1964 as well.
Will the Minister confirm today that, even with an implementation period, we shall leave the common fisheries policy on 29 March 2019, and that access to resources will not be sacrificed to buy access to the market?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), on securing the debate.
Like many other Members taking part in this afternoon’s debate, I represent a coastal constituency—31 miles of magnificent North sea coastline from St Cyrus to Portlethen. However, I am unlike most of those Members, in that I do not represent much of a fishing industry—certainly not as much as my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) or the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) represent. But the fishing industry is important to me, and should be to all Members, not just because of its impact on the communities that immediately rely on its success, but because fishermen are the best of British. The audacity, ingenuity and energy shown by individuals in the industry in the face of overwhelming odds, regulation, legislation, bans, plans and forced decommissioning should be commended. It is through their sheer determination and innovation, not the words of politicians and civil servants, that record landings are being made at Peterhead. Amazingly, last year North sea cod was recertified as sustainable. That is why we cannot let fishermen down now, and why before my election I signed a pledge committing me to do what I can to ensure that the UK is taken out of the common fisheries policy at the earliest available opportunity. That means 11 pm on 29 March 2019.
I voted remain in the referendum in 2016, but I have no reservations in saying that exiting the European Union can only be a good thing for our fishing industry. It will allow us to forge a new fisheries policy, freed from Brussels diktats and overseas interests, and away from that most harmful of European directives, on equal access to a common resource—a phrase invented only on Britain’s entry to the European Community. We will be able to drive and implement policies that work for our fishermen and our fishing industry.
To those—and they are out there—who think that fishermen do not care about the environment or sustainability and that somehow an independent UK will abandon our commitment to sustainable stocks and good management, I say that is nonsense. No other industry is as invested in protecting its future, the sustainability of its stock, and its environment as the British fishing industry. As one fisherman said to me not long ago, of course fishermen want sustainable fisheries: no fish, no industry—it is simple.
The Brexit vote has led to great optimism in the Scottish fishing industry, and not without good reason. Brexit offers a host of opportunities for reviving our fisheries and our coastal communities in general. It now falls to us to deliver it for them.
When I think of the time I spent in Brussels, sitting in sweaty rooms negotiating the reform of the common fisheries policy, I sometimes think, “Was that time all wasted?” I suggest that it was not, because the principles that we secured in the reforms are absolutely valid for the measures we need in future, to manage our fisheries after we leave the EU. The core theme that runs through the 25-year environment plan is the desire to leave the natural environment in a better state than the one in which we found it.
The marine environment is every bit as important as the terrestrial one, and key elements of the common fisheries reforms are consistent with that approach. A legal requirement to fish according to maximum sustainable yield, an end to discarding and to the top-down management of fisheries, and putting management of fisheries on a more local basis are key themes that should continue. The key principles should also be grounded in an ecosystems approach. Fish shoal in one area of sea, spawn in another and chase seasonally-dependent nutrition in another. Many of those areas cross national boundaries, so co-operation across those boundaries is vital. I want to hear what the Minister says about the Government’s thinking about that.
There is a cumulative effect from human activities. Overfishing, acidification, increased water temperature, cables and windfarms all have an impact on the management of our waters. There can be opportunities that come from that, and, in relation to marine planning as well as fisheries, I want a holistic view to be taken of the management of our seas. The fishing industry is a key part of that.
I join with every other Member of the House who has dissed the common fisheries policy, given the problems that it brought on our seas and coastal communities; but even if we had never gone into it, we would still face problems, because man’s ability to harvest from the oceans through increased technology has grown exponentially. We should still have faced the same problems of under-abundance that we face, to an extent, now—added to which the CFP made things much worse.
It is very important to consider how a legal requirement to fish sustainably, imposed under a pan-national organisation, is to be replaced by us as an independent state outside that organisation. The Secretary of State has spoken about the new body that will administer the environment, and what he said about that and about the process is also important. The Government will lay a national policy statement before Parliament, and that may require a separate marine policy statement. I hope that that, too, will be fundamentally linked to science and evidence, and that we shall produce a coherent, holistic system of management of our seas.
The phrase I now hear most commonly, by a big majority, from UK voters on the issue of Brexit is: “Get on with it.” They are amazed at how long it is taking. I take some comfort when Ministers assure us that the two years and nine months that will elapse between our decision and our departure will be sufficient to prepare everything needed for a smooth transition in the event that there is no agreement. I know that the Government want an agreement, and I wish them well with their negotiations, but it is important for us to learn that everything will be ready. I am sure that the Minister, an enthusiastic supporter of a UK fishing industry, is up there with the best in making sure that things are ready. I should like him to confirm that, because the Government assure us that everything will work on 30 March 2019, that will certainly be true of an independent fishery, if the general negotiations go badly.
Like many others who represent fishing communities, I urge the Minister not to allow the fishing industry to be sucked into any agreement over so-called long transition or implementation. Two years and nine months is quite long enough to work out what we are going to do, and to put in place the things that are needed. Will the Minister promise us, in the next year and a month remaining before our exit from the common fisheries policy, an early White Paper? It is time now, after extensive consultation and study, for us to have a statement of Government intent, to which fishing communities can respond promptly, so that we have a firm and settled policy that will indeed be kinder to our fishermen, fishing grounds, economic interests and fish stocks, as many have described.
Will the Minister promise that we shall then go on to legislate this year, so that any legal powers necessary for the new framework will be up and running in good time, by the time we leave on 30 March 2019? Does he agree with me, and with the sense I get from the debate, that the fishing industry is perhaps the worst damaged of all the many industries that have been damaged by various EU policies—although time does not allow us to talk about that—and that therefore it is even more urgent for fishing to be extracted from EU controls and direction, so that we can again give priority to local and UK interests, and to conservation interests? That is my challenge to the Minister: White Paper, legislation, independence, victory, better industry, conservation of fish stocks. A simple task—I know he is up to it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your charismatic chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing this debate and on his assiduous attention to fisheries. He is looking to 31 March 2019 and for no transition period at all, and said interesting things about effort control, the time-at-sea versus a quota-based approach, and a hybrid of the two. I am quite friendly with a Faroese fisherman, Høgni Hoydal—he has had his own efforts and struggles with his fisheries community. I will investigate further what the hon. Gentleman suggests. If I have understood correctly, he wants nothing to do with the common fisheries policy if we have a transition deal.
Net soak time is an interesting issue of which the Minister and hon. Members, should be aware. The hon. Gentleman talked about Britain’s fish—the UK’s fish—but when it comes to Brexit, we know that 111 powers will be going to Scotland, including on fisheries. I therefore take his use of “Britain” to mean “England”, but I will not overly chastise him because that happens from time to time. I note, however, the interesting idea—I am quite sympathetic to it—regarding all quotas, or fish, landed in the UK. When the Scottish fisheries Minister tried to implement such a measure, he came up against a bit of push-back, but it is worthy of consideration. If people are playing a patriotic game with fish catching, they can also play it with fish landing, and that would be well worth while.
The hon. Gentleman did not mention shellfish. I represent the Outer Hebrides, which has a consistent, long, 200-mile coastline and coastal waters, and 150 miles of land. It is probably the constituency with the largest sea area, and one of the largest in the Westminster Parliament, although sadly it is the smallest by number of constituents. We sell a lot of shellfish to the French and Spanish, and some even goes to China. Unfortunately, the good people of England cannot afford it, but if they are prepared to pay more, we are prepared to sell them shellfish from the Hebrides. It is the tastiest stuff to be found. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said that the Norwegians were in the single market to avoid non-tariff barriers. Fisheries in the Hebrides are very worried about not being in the single market—non-tariff barriers are particularly important to them.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) made an excellent speech—according to our charismatic Chair he was top of the class. I had him down as “thoughtful”, but I also noted “top of the class”, which indeed he was. His speech contained so many bits and pieces of information that I will have to go back and look at Hansard—perhaps with you, Mr Paisley—so that we pick up the nuggets in that veritable goldmine. His points about entitlements to a local fishery were important, as was the possible reorganisation of fisheries. We must remember that established fishing interests might not be that keen on such things, but the hon. Gentleman was very exercised about supporting communities that feel they have lost out over a number of years.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was surprised to be called so early in the debate—I cannot imagine how or why that happened, other than due to his natural skill and assiduousness in debates. Last night, it was remarked that he was probably the only Member who is expected to turn up to Adjournment debates other than the Minister, their private secretary, and the person who secured the debate, and he deserves to be called for that alone. He said that boats have been lost to European bureaucracy, but we must remember that the UK Government signed up in the 1990s to scrap boats. We must also recognise the issue of technology—that point was touched on by the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). Iceland has lost a lot of boats, and fishing communities there moan a lot about what they have lost because of the march of technology. At one time, 25% of Iceland’s population worked in fisheries; now it is 4%. Icelanders hope to have even less of their population working in fisheries, such is the march of technology. Their boats have saunas on them nowadays—that stuff is unimaginable to fishermen in the Outer Hebrides.
The hon. Member for Strangford also mentioned crew from the Philippines, who play a vital role. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) said that fishermen were the best of British, or the best of everything going—I used to be a fisherman myself, although I was not as good as half the lads I stood alongside—but 27.4% of our crews are from outside the UK, and a good number of them, as the hon. Member for Strangford knows, are from places such as the Philippines and Ghana. We need more of them.
Has the hon. Gentleman found, as I have recently, that notwithstanding the insistence that those crews work in the UK only on the basis of a transit visa, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs now insist that they pay income tax here?
HMRC and the Government have taken a number of steps to lose tax over a number of years, so it is interesting that they might be trying to have the best of both worlds, or have their cake and eat it, while leaving some of our boats unfortunately without fishermen.
I am mindful of time—I agreed to give up some of my time so that more Members could speak, because I think a plurality of voice is important. The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) mentioned 29 March 2019, as did a number of other Members. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) expressed the frustration that we all feel with the centralised, bureaucratic and unresponsive CFP. The point about data collection every two years was important.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) mentioned the Danes. I was reminded of how the Secretary of State had one message for our fishermen when he was in Peterhead, but when he was in Copenhagen a few weeks later, quite a different message for our fishermen turned up on Twitter, together with a nice message for the fishermen of Jutland. Perhaps we can get that sorted out one way or the other.
Coal and fish were mentioned by the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), as was Aneurin Bevan. I am tempted to ask who sold out the fisheries and closed down the pits, but I wouldn’t do that. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) made important points about the improvement in fish stocks. Nineteen key stocks are now about 70% fished to sustainability, up from 60% in 2015. There has been some improvement.
I have debated with the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) in this Chamber many a time. In fact, many years ago, she tragically lost her late husband and is forever held in respect in fisheries debates—we all listen closely to whatever she has to say.
The right hon. Member for Newbury was right in what he said about the tragedy of the commons. That can affect fisheries, and we must remember that under the previous fisheries policy, herring stocks collapsed from overfishing. We must look to ourselves, because we are as guilty as anybody if given the opportunity to go over the quota on fishing.
I would like to touch on a number of points, but will not because I promised to allow others to speak. However, I wish to stress the importance of migrant workers. We talk about getting migrant workers in for agriculture, but we need them for fisheries as well. People come from the Philippines and Ghana—I know some of them personally—and they live on the island I am from. They are fantastic men and we need more of them. They are great and they add to the community. We want them and there is no reason for not having them. It is usually the Minister responsible for immigration in London who stops them coming—everybody else wants them. I asked the Secretary of State what will happen to EU boats when he takes the quota from them, whether there will be a difference between a historic quota and a boat quota, and how and when that will happen. He dodged the question and said that the catch was going on
“to the plates of people from the Western Isles to the south-west of England,”—[Official Report, 25 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 396.]
I said, “Good dodge”, and he said, “Thank you” in the Chamber, but today I am looking for more of a straight answer from the Minister.
Finally, the antipathy that I and many others feel towards the CFP is not really mirrored in Ireland, and I wonder whether they had better negotiators back in the ’70s and the ’90s than we had in Scotland going through London. Certainly, Ireland would not move discussions from Dublin to London, which is why we should start in Edinburgh this time round.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), and I thank you, Mr Paisley, for chairing this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing this debate. He opened proceedings with an incredibly balanced and insightful speech, and has a passion for fishing. I think I speak for everybody when I say that we are all ears regarding any and all measures we can consider that will put an end to the wasteful practice of discards. I lend my support to his proposal to pilot schemes wherever possible, so that we can build that evidence base and inform the incredibly important decisions in the following weeks and months that will form the basis of future UK fisheries policy.
Today’s debate is timely and important considering that we are just over a year away from leaving the European Union, and phase 2, which will include negotiations on the future of fisheries, is about to begin. As with the annual fisheries debate last December, however, it is not entirely possible to use this opportunity to consider, scrutinise, or get to grips with the detail of fisheries policy post-Brexit because those negotiations have not yet happened. Nor have we had policy papers of any colour to help shape or steer the discussion. With the timetable for the fisheries Bill still shrouded in ambiguity, it brings me early in my speech to my first ask to the Minister. MPs on both sides of the House, as well as stakeholders across the fishing industry, would be grateful for any update on the timetable for policy papers and the fisheries Bill to assist with preparations for what will be an incredibly intense period once that process gets under way.
As we have already heard, there are a range of Brexit interests and opinions within the UK’s fishing community. People’s fears and aspirations for a post-Brexit policy vary significantly based on where they are in the country and what is being fished. Those fishing eels in Northern Ireland—I sympathise with the frustrations of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—will have a different outlook from the trawlermen from Peterhead, and the large fish processors in places such as Grimsby will see things very differently from anglers in Lyme Regis.
To ensure that the Labour party has the most comprehensive understanding of those variations, at the end of last year we launched a consultation ahead of the upcoming fisheries Bill. We want to ensure that those with an interest can have a say in that process, and I am looking forward to going through those submissions in detail when the consultation closes.
The rhetoric of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has driven expectations for a significant uplift in economic activity in the fishing sector, which we are all keen to see. It will not have escaped the Minister, however, that much of this Government’s rhetoric on fishing has been far from harmonised with that of the EU27. Has the Minister seen, and had chance to reflect on, the draft statement produced by the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries—the PECH Committee—which will form the European Parliament’s resolution next month that will facilitate phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations? The statement makes it crystal clear that the EU27 will seek to ensure mutual access to waters and resources in accordance with the relative stability principle. It stresses that reciprocal market access for fishery products has to be negotiated as part of a free trade agreement or an association agreement, and that the level of access to the EU domestic market has to be conditional on the level of access for EU vessels to UK fishing grounds, linking both matters in the agreements.
That position could not be any more at odds with this Government or the Secretary of State. Faced with that, will the Minister outline for hon. Members the Government’s red lines on fishing? Will the Government seek to deal with access to waters and access to the single market separately, or accept the PECH Committee’s terms of both matters being intrinsically linked? How do they intend to build support for our position within the remaining EU27?
Could the hon. Lady clarify what the Labour party’s position is? Has she just read out the Labour party’s position? Is it what the PECH Committee has said?
No. I want to be clear that the policy statement has come from the PECH Committee of the European Parliament. We will all have our concerns. We are going through that consultation and will outline it in more detail in the coming weeks, but I am clear that we are about to embark on phase 2. That is the position of the EU27, and I am keen to get the Minister’s perspective on it.
With that in mind, I appreciate that the Government have been walking a tightrope for months. Despite his tough taking-back-control narrative, the Secretary of State apparently told the Danish market back in August of last year that
“boats from EU countries will still be able to operate in UK waters after Brexit, as the UK does not have enough capacity to catch and process all its fish alone.”
During the annual fisheries debate in December, I asked the Minister for the evidence base for that assertion, which has been contested by the representative fishing organisations that I have met—they have been mentioned in the debate. Can he add any more meat to the bones of that suggestion?
As an MP for a thriving fishing community, the Minister will be aware that access to European markets is incredibly important for our fishing industry. Although the level of dependence on the European market varies by sector, up to 85% of our crab, lobster and prawns are sold into Europe. We will need the freest possible trade with our neighbours if we are to satisfy the demand from European consumers for our top-quality shellfish.
Last year, the Financial Times reported on the Coast Seafood company on Norway’s west coast, which is obliged to pay 2% tariffs on exports of raw salmon, trout and herring to the EU. If it wants to sell processed products such as smoked salmon or salted fish, those are classed as value-added and, in the case of smoked salmon, face a tax of 13%. That is because Norway is outside both the EU and the customs union. The firm’s owner told the paper that the tariffs hold back the Norwegian industry. It is for that reason that Labour is committed to a customs union with the EU. We want to prioritise trade and ensure that those routes to market for our seafood products remain open. A situation where fish processing becomes uncompetitive would be a massive problem for constituencies such as Grimsby.
The Brexit Committee was told by Norwegian witnesses that, because Norway is not in the customs union, there are high tariffs on processed fish and they send their fish to Poland and Germany to be processed. Does the hon. Lady agree that, if the United Kingdom leaves the customs union, many fish processing jobs will be lost in Scotland and beyond?
That is the fear. There will be constituencies around the UK, such as Grimsby, where many jobs are involved in the fish processing sector. We seek clarity on that from the Government as we go into the negotiations.
Is the hon. Lady also saying that it is Labour policy that we should be prepared to bargain away fish stocks in order to get that customs agreement?
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the opening speech, where we had a nuanced approach. That will be in the discussions. Access to markets will be important for our fish, but having control of our waters is incredibly important. The Government will have to strike that balance as they go into the negotiations, which is what we are reflecting on today.
In contrast, the Conservative Government have moved from saying that they want trade with the EU after Brexit to be tariff-free to saying that they want trade to be as tariff-free as possible. It is starting to feel as though we are moving only backwards against the Government’s, if not the leave campaign’s, initial bold assertions for a post-Brexit fisheries policy.
It is reassuring that there is firm common ground between the fishing industry, conservationists, recreational fishers and consumers alike that a sustainable approach to a new fishing policy is the only game in town. That was the theme running through a fisheries discussion of experts that I chaired on behalf of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology just last week. For a sustainable approach to work, however, we need two things if we are to have confidence in managing fish stocks responsibly. We need a means of robustly enforcing our approach, and we need to get the science right. Those two things have been mentioned in the debate today, and I am sure they will be considerations for the Minister in the coming weeks and months.
There is renewed public awareness of the need for action to preserve our marine environments—a point made passionately by the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I am hopeful that consumer movements will play an important role in reducing the plastic waste in our waters. The success of the Marine Stewardship Council certifications shows how environmentally aware consumers can bring about positive change. However, we will need Government action to prevent plastics and protect marine environments.
Labour are proud of our record in government and of introducing the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. We included bold commitments in our manifesto ahead of last year’s general election. We support the blue belt proposals for our overseas territories, and our recently released animal welfare plan announced a consultation on the creation of national marine parks. I hope that those matters will not be overlooked as the negotiations on the future of the UK’s fisheries policy move forward.
Marine protection and fisheries management, as we have already heard, are two sides of the same coin. If we get it right and set the standard both domestically and in our waters around the world, we can secure a flourishing marine environment and a strong and profitable fisheries sector. However, on many of the biggest questions faced by the fisheries sector, hopes are high, but we are still in the dark on much of the detail. There are plenty of opportunities for our fishermen and women and our coastal communities as we leave the EU, but what we desperately need from this Government is the road map, outlining just how we deliver against those opportunities.
Given that the mover of the motion had such a good innings, I do not intend to call him to make a wind-up. I call the Minister, George Eustice.
Thank you, Mr Paisley. May I begin my thanking my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) and congratulating him on securing this debate? I know that this is very important to him, as a fellow Cornish MP. All of us, including my hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and for St Ives (Derek Thomas), are very aware of the importance of the industry to our area.
We have had many contributions from Members from a whole range of coastal communities, including my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), who has probably got more fisheries in his constituency than the rest of us put together. It is a huge industry in his constituency. We have also had very thoughtful contributions from many Members, including my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who made some important points. The last reform of the CFP, which he was instrumental in, established some important principles. As we leave the European Union and the CFP, it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that the principles behind policies such as fishing sustainably, using MSY as a key target and making a legal commitment to do so, the discard ban and the landing obligation were right.
Several hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), asked for an update on the situation. He will have noticed that we published our agricultural Command Paper today, and when it comes to fisheries, he does not have much longer to wait. That paper is well advanced: various drafts are being worked on and hon. Members can expect it to be published later in spring. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Queen’s Speech set out a clear commitment for a fisheries Bill in this Session. The intention is for it to be introduced later this year, possibly—probably—before the summer recess. That is the timescale we are working to.
My right hon. Friend asked whether we would be ready in the event that we come out of the European Union at the end of March 2019 without any agreement, including without an implementation period. The answer is yes. On all fronts, Government are working on contingency plans to ensure that we are ready. In the case of fisheries, that predominantly means ensuring that we plan to have adequate capacity for processing catch certificates, for example, which will be important for our export trade, and adequate enforcement capacity to police our exclusive economic zone.
As we leave the European Union, the international legal position is straightforward and beyond doubt. Under the UN convention on the law of the sea, the UK becomes an independent coastal state, just like the Faroe Islands, Norway and Iceland. That means that we take control of our exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles or the median line, in which we have responsibility for managing access and managing that resource. UNCLOS also requires us to co-operate with our neighbours on shared resources and shared stocks, which we intend to do anyway.
Several hon. Members mentioned the 1964 London fisheries convention. Last July, under the terms of that convention, we gave two years’ notice of our intention to quit. That historic agreement gave us some access to some member states in our six to 12-mile zone, so it seemed important to withdraw from it at the same time as we review access arrangements.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) pointed out, there is a huge imbalance in the apportionment of fishing opportunities. In each year between 2012 and 2016, the EU fleet took 760,000 tonnes of fish on average from UK waters. In that same period, the average annual take by the UK fleet from EU waters was 90,000 tonnes. We have been clear that, as we regain control of access and the management of our resources, our intention is to rebalance that arrangement.
The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) pointed out that the European Union’s Committee on Fisheries—PECH—would like things to stay the same, but it would say that. Why would it not, when the deal is so imbalanced? However, at the end of the day, it does not really matter what the European Union asks for, but what we are prepared to grant it. That is the approach that we will take. We will work in an honourable and sensible way with our European partners, while recognising that we will have control of our exclusive economic zone.
On that basis, does the Minister agree that we can have our fishcake and eat it?
That is a very good way of putting it.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall talked about some of Fishing for Leave’s proposals. I have met Fishing for Leave on several occasions. Our officials in the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have also met with it about its proposals.
At the heart of it, one of the things I have learned as a fisheries Minister is that nothing ever quite works—there are pros and cons to everything, because the marine environment is incredibly complex. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) pointed out, quota regimes tend to work well where there are single-species fisheries, particularly for pelagic fish such as mackerel. It would be inconceivable to move away from a quota regime if we were targeting those pelagic fish. An effort regime can work better where there is a highly mixed fishery with different species and where there is an inshore fleet with a limited quota, but it is quite bureaucratic to send small inshore fishermen out with a quota of 20 kilos of cod for an entire month and expect them to manage with that. We are looking at some of those ideas.
With regard to mixed fisheries, if we did have an effort regime, would it have the flexibility to compensate fishermen by allowing them to land the bass catches, for example, that they find in their nets?
If I have time, I will return to the bass. In principle, it probably does not make a lot of difference, because it would depend on the bycatch provisions.
There are pros and cons to those systems, and we are looking closely at them, as well as at the hybrid model that my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall outlined. It is something that we would want to introduce carefully—my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, pointed out that his Ramsgate trial was not altogether successful.
My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall raised the issue of trade, but I regard that as a separate negotiation: there is a discussion on fisheries management and a separate discussion on trade.
There is a tension between having devolved matters in fishing and agriculture and a UK approach to trade. Does the Minister agree that there needs to be some reconciliation of that tension? How does he propose to deal with that?
Fisheries negotiations are international, so they are a UK competence, but we always take members of the devolved Administrations with us as part of our delegation. Trade and fisheries are both UK competences, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall that they should be kept separate.
We have a huge trade deficit in food with the European Union. A sensible basis for the discussion is that we will buy its food, if it buys ours. However, the difference in fish is not as big as some envisage, although we have a trade surplus. We export just over £1 billion of fish to the EU, but we import just short of £1 billion.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall mentioned the issue of spider crabs and promoting other fish species. A levy body called Seafish is responsible for that.
I will try to make a little headway, otherwise we will not get to anybody else.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall also mentioned pulse trawling. I have previously made clear that we have concerns about that and I have asked CEFAS to look at it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous)—whose constituency is the home of CEFAS, the world’s leading centre for science in fisheries—raised the issue of the small inshore fleet, for which he has been a consistent campaigner. Through the discard quota uplift, we have already sought to give the inshore fleet a significant quota increase, but leaving the EU is another opportunity to look at some of those management operations.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) mentioned the complex issue of skates and rays. There are over 20 different species of skates and rays, some of which are prohibited, and it is very difficult to get their management right. Our long-term objective is to break the composite total allowable catch down into individual species.
On the issue of bass, which my hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall and for North Cornwall raised, there should have been a larger bycatch provision for trawlers, as there was last year. We did not agree with the Commission’s approach, but we were unable to win the argument this time.
We have had a good debate. It was clearly not long enough, because nearly every hon. Member had their contribution cut short. I reassure hon. Members that we will have plenty of time to discuss the issue in future.
I have time to mention the issue of trade from countries such as Norway. Several hon. Members pointed to the small tariffs on those countries, but they ignored the autonomous tariff-rate quota allowances, which are tariff-free quotas that we could create and that the EU creates. On species such as cod, Norway does not pay tariffs and we import large quantities of fish from Iceland that is tariff free under the preferential trade or ATQ—autonomous tariff quota—system. There are many devices that we can use in international trade to deal with those issues.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, and no doubt we will have many more such debates in the months ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered future UK fisheries policy.
National Democracy Week
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
We now come to an important debate about National Democracy Week, for which there is probably no one more qualified to move the motion than Mr Chris Skidmore.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered National Democracy Week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to highlight the importance of the week beginning 2 July 2018, which the Government announced last year as the inaugural National Democracy Week. I should declare my interest: I was the Cabinet Office Minister who made that announcement on 15 September 2017, committing the Government to establishing the week. I hope the Minister does not feel that I am appearing as a ministerial Banquo’s ghost; it is not my intention to haunt my old Department, but to highlight the week’s potential, not only for the Minister and the Cabinet Office—the Department responsible for democratic engagement—but for promoting democratic engagement and the concept of democratic inclusion, as defined in the Government’s recent democratic engagement plan.
We chose the week beginning 2 July as National Democracy Week because it will mark the 90th anniversary of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which gave women a truly equal right to vote. As the Minister will be aware, although we recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the right for women to vote being won by the suffrage movement, that right applied only to women over the age of 30; it was another 10 years before Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government passed the legislation that placed men and women on an equal footing in the eyes of our democracy.
As part of this year’s suffrage centenary celebrations, National Democracy Week has the opportunity not only to highlight the importance of the 1928 Act and its place in history but to look ahead. That is vital, because it will allow us to ask ourselves whether we believe the franchise is truly equal or whether there is more we can do to ensure that every voice matters in our democracy and that we are content that our democracy is truly working for everyone in society.
I am delighted that 100 years and a day after the Representation of the People Act 1918, the Minister introduced legislation to ensure that the process of anonymous registration would be made much easier for survivors of domestic violence. It demonstrates that, as a matter of social justice, we elected representatives must always listen closely to voices who state that they are still struggling to exercise their democratic right to vote. One campaigner, Mehala Osborne, a survivor of domestic violence, found that she was unable to vote in the mayoral elections in Bristol, so with Women’s Aid on board, she began a campaign for a more democratic society. She demonstrated that despite the fact that we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, there are still women in society who are unable to vote because they may be put at risk if they join the electoral register publicly. I am delighted that the Minister has taken action to change that situation so that survivors of domestic violence can much more easily register anonymously to vote in this year’s local elections.
It is clear that in this year of celebration of suffrage and democracy, there are still people in this country who, through no fault of their own, cannot vote—not citizens who refuse to engage in the democratic process, tragic as that is, but active citizens whose voice continues to go unheard because they are unable to participate in elections. Although legislation can give the appearance of equal rights and participation, the reality is that modern Governments always have to look again at the barriers that prevent certain groups in society from exercising their democratic right to vote.
For people who have learning disabilities or physical disabilities, I know that the Government are committed to working to ensure that every stage of the democratic process is as smooth and clear as possible, with their review of the accessibility of elections. For people whose voice may be silenced by electoral fraud, I know that the Government’s plans to increase electoral integrity will be of real value, preventing impersonation at polling stations, tightening the application process for postal votes and reducing the threat of intimidation—not only for voters at polling stations, but for candidates standing for election.
Those are important reforms for today that will help to strengthen our democratic process and give people the right to vote, but we should also think of tomorrow. We may not know what tomorrow will bring, but I believe that this year and in future years, National Democracy Week should help to provide a vital forum to discuss what more we need to do collectively to strengthen our democracy and meet future challenges. Some of those challenges we know about and some are still unknowable, but we will have a week to consider them.
Civil society organisations have already organised events such as National Voter Registration Week. Such events have been highly successful in years of electoral activity, but less so in what I call the years of peacetime. I hope that the establishment of National Democracy Week will allow all civil society groups and political parties, regardless of colour, to rally around the first week of every July so that it becomes a permanent fixture in the political and democratic calendar of the United Kingdom. The July date will also allow it to mark the beginning of the annual canvass. I recognise that the canvass is well overdue for reform, which will undoubtedly happen, but I hope that local authorities across the country will recognise the value of the week and take the opportunity to highlight their own electoral registration processes to ensure that every eligible member can join that year’s electoral register.
My ambition when establishing National Democracy Week was not only for at least one event to take place in every local authority across the country, starting at a low level and building up in future years, but for as many Members of Parliament and elected local councillors as possible to get involved and speak in schools—perhaps on the Friday, when hon. Members are back in their constituencies. That will allow us to demonstrate on social media and elsewhere the value of the week as a mass participation and engagement exercise similar to Small Business Saturday.
Much work is going on behind the scenes in preparation for this year’s National Democracy Week: chapter 13 of the Government’s democratic engagement plan sets out the next steps for the week, and the National Democracy Week council comprises key civil society groups involved in our democratic society. I would value an update from the Minister on the progress of preparations, but also on when she thinks the Cabinet Office will go public with the launch of a communications strategy for the week, possibly including a Twitter handle, a website, packs for parliamentarians and other materials for organisations that will lead engagement locally.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the strong interest shown by the United Nations in the Government’s proposals, and indeed in our democratic engagement strategy. I believe that as one of the oldest democracies in the world, the UK has a duty to encourage and inspire developing democracies to look at participation in and access to their own elections. National Democracy Week provides a real opportunity for international engagement as well as local involvement.
I know that the Minister, who was previously chair of the all-party group on democratic participation, shares my commitment that participation in our democracy, electoral registration and electoral access is more than just a technical or legal matter. It sends out a message that behind every vote is a voice that deserves to be heard, and I hope that National Democracy Week will focus on what we can do and need to do for our democratic future, just as we commemorate our democratic past.
I hope that this year’s National Democracy Week will be the first of many, but its success depends on getting as many people involved in as many regions and local authorities as possible. My message to anyone who cares about democratic participation is to get involved, get involved now and contact the Cabinet Office. This is too important an issue for party politics and I hope that in 10 years’ time, when we will celebrate in 2028 the 100th anniversary of that true equal franchise, National Democracy Week will still be going from strength to strength as a cornerstone of our democratic calendar.
May I say, Mr Hollobone, what a pleasure it is to have you join us today and chair this debate?
I thank my hon. Friend for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) not only for securing the debate, but for everything he has said and done on this issue during his time in this place. He shows us that these things are not just technical or legal matters that need to run and tick in the background of our democracy, but the very heart of our democracy—everybody has their place within it. I put on the record my thanks to him for his efforts in leading us so far on National Democracy Week. It is a pleasure to take up from him in fulfilling the plans for this week. I will go on to explain those plans in detail.
It is important that we cover, in our short time for debate, how organisations and individuals can be part of making National Democracy Week a success. As my hon. Friend said, it is a week of unified action. It is not only for the Government to organise, but for civil society and a range of partners. It is certainly not just for London and Westminster, but for the whole United Kingdom, to come together and participate.
I am passionate about ensuring that everybody who is entitled to vote can do so and registers to do so. Registration itself, albeit a technical and legal matter, is absolutely the prerequisite, the foundation and the bedrock for ensuring that we have a democracy that works and flourishes. As my hon. Friend rightly recognises— he published the Government’s plan for democratic engagement in December last year—that means understanding the barriers that exist for particular groups and how best to tackle them.
I will come on to all of those matters in my remarks today, but I will start by reflecting on the purpose of National Democracy Week, what it aims to achieve and why it is so important. As in many things, my hon. Friend has got there ahead of me and explained why it is important that National Democracy Week should start in this particular year. This year is the double centenary of suffrage. The Government are leading and co-ordinating activities in 2018 to mark that milestone in our democracy. National Democracy Week is one of those events and is part of our approach to engage those who are perhaps less likely to participate in democracy, which certainly includes those who face physical or other barriers in trying to register to vote.
Much progress has been made towards broadening our democracy. That includes the launch of individual electoral registration, since which we have seen the enthusiasm of electors to ensure that they have their say in the democratic process. I am very proud that the register for last year’s general election was, at 46.9 million, the largest ever. Indeed, more than 30 million people have applied to register to vote using the digital registration service since its launch in 2014.
The Minister is making some good points, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this debate. On digital registration, however, there is a problem with people registering to vote for general elections in multiple locations, as opposed to asserting their right to vote at a local election in a number of locations. What steps are the Minister and her Department considering taking to tackle that?
My hon. Friend makes a helpful point in reminding us that, even as we celebrate the flourishing nature of our democracy, we must also ensure that it has integrity and security. He highlights an issue that I know has been in the minds of many people, not only since last year’s general election but as a general point about the process of making it easier to register to vote. Some people ask, “Well, is it easier not only to register to vote but to use one’s vote in an unlawful way?”, which is what he is driving at. It is not unlawful to register to vote in local elections in multiple places, but it is unlawful to vote twice in the same election. As the Minister with responsibility for electoral registration, I am looking for evidence of any such unlawfulness—my door is always open to any hon. Member who believes they have such evidence. If I received such, I would discuss it with the Electoral Commission and the relevant parts of our police authorities.
It is extremely important that we are vigilant about electoral fraud wherever we find it. In fact, to pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, electoral fraud is not a victimless crime—it is a crime against a person whose right to speak has been robbed from them. That is very important to note in this context and this year, when we are looking to celebrate our democracy. In the context of the record highs that we are seeing in our democracy at the moment, it is important to be reassured. There are very high levels of completeness and accuracy in the electoral registers, which should give us confidence that we continue to live in a very secure democracy. We all want to keep it that way.
I am working this year with a range of organisations to build on the momentum of getting more people registered to vote. The first example of that work was noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood: improving how people register anonymously. Working with Women’s Aid, the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators, we have developed reforms to improve access to that scheme for survivors of domestic abuse. Today marks the next phase in the parliamentary passage of the regulations dealing with that work. They will be debated first in the House of Lords and, alongside other registration changes including anti-fraud measures, taken through Parliament, but implementing them is our core aim.
I am considering measures to improve student electoral registration. That will be done not only by listening to parliamentarians and engaging again with the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators, but by requiring for the first time that higher education providers co-operate with electoral registration officers to facilitate electoral registration among their student population.
As a final example of that work, we can improve access for those with disabilities. A call for evidence has been launched by the Government, which I am delighted to say has returned many very helpful points. I want to understand and act on them.
I apologise for my late arrival for this debate—I was participating in the business in the main Chamber.
The Minister makes a very valuable point about vulnerable people, especially those who will be addressed in National Democracy Week and those who can now vote anonymously if they are survivors of domestic abuse. I led a debate in Westminster Hall on the Disability Confident scheme to engage more disabled people in the workforce. I hope she can continue that work in relation to democratic participation, and ensure that disabled people are as active in our democratic process as they are in our workforce.
I am absolutely delighted to find a fellow passionate advocate in my hon. Friend, and I thank him for reminding us that there is a place for everybody in our democracy, just as there is in our economy and society. That is what we are engaged in. There is more to do on exactly that. The Government’s democratic engagement plan made the commitment to launch the first ever National Democracy Week to encourage greater understanding and recognition of the UK’s electoral system and of how it gives all our citizens the voice they deserve.
The week will be held between 2 and 8 July this year, coinciding with both the year-long suffrage centenary celebrations and, on 2 July, the 90th anniversary of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which gave equal voting rights to men and women. National Democracy Week will be a moment for engaging people from under-registered groups by uniting stakeholders in a shared ambition and in the message that, regardless of who we are or where we have come from, we must together ensure that every person in our society who is entitled to do so has a voice and an equal chance to participate in our democracy. Organisations with an interest in democratic participation will be brought together for a week of unified national action.
The week is supported by a National Democracy Week Council, which has been established as a way for organisations to support and develop the week’s activities. Its members will be incredibly helpful in delivering the activities and in encouraging others to take part, and I put on record my thanks to them. The council is composed of senior figures from across the electoral community and the civil society sector, and will help us to put potential electors at the heart of the democratic process and ensure that we reach as far and wide as possible. The council’s role involves advising on the events and activities, taking an active role in communicating them across the United Kingdom and in mobilising organisations, and measuring success and reporting back on the week.
The work in hand that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood asked me to report on includes developing the creative elements of the campaign, such as the brand identity and the communications materials, which I will bring to the House as soon as I can. There will be a campaign website, and an awards ceremony to recognise outstanding achievement and innovation in democratic engagement, for which nominations will open in March 2018. There will be a great amount to do to include parliamentarians in the work and myriad ways to ensure that we reach out to under-registered groups, including young people, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. I stress that we are strongly encouraging all parts of the United Kingdom to run events so that people everywhere have a chance to take part. I am delighted to see in this very Chamber representation from across the United Kingdom, which is very important. A programme of events will be published on a public calendar on the National Democracy Week website from later in March when the website is launched, and nominations for the awards will open in parallel.
I want to put a few points on the record about the link with the suffrage centenary. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced a £5 million fund for projects to commemorate the 2018 milestone and the significance of the suffrage movement. The centenary is momentous in its own right—hon. Members know that there will be a range of activities across Parliament. Although the centenary is distinct from National Democracy Week, the two come together in a shared objective and remind us that the rights were often hard-fought-for and therefore should be celebrated all the more.
The resources for National Democracy Week will help us to ensure that we engage everyone in the task. Civil society organisations, central and local government, schools, colleges, universities, young people and Members all have their part to play. A series of resources will be tailored for specific audiences. For example, there will be a free National Democracy Week pack to help plan and publicise activities and the website will provide further support. Hon. Members will be able to download materials as part of the celebrations. There will be a parliamentarian pack to help MPs to connect with, and inspire, young people, and a schools resource pack with a specific focus on the suffrage movement at secondary school level. There will be a programme of democracy ambassadors—young advocates recruited to inspire their peers to champion democratic participation—and a youth digital campaign to support the promotion and recruitment of democracy ambassadors among young people aged between 13 and 16.
I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood for calling this debate on a very important issue.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive update on the content of National Democracy Week. I am sure that democratic society and civil society groups will welcome the news she has announced. I welcome the fact that we have had Members here from Cornwall, Perthshire, Suffolk, Merseyside and Liverpool—all corners of the United Kingdom—providing representation and demonstrating that there is a truly national interest in National Democracy Week.
I again echo that point about the breadth of the work across our whole Union. There is an opportunity for all parts of our United Kingdom to celebrate our democracy and its preciousness, and the opportunities for more people to take their role and have a voice in it.
I welcome further ideas for National Democracy Week from any hon. Member or any Member of the other place. After all, we have the privilege of standing here as part of our democracy—we are proud to do so—but by extension it falls to us to help others to do the same. I welcome thoughts from hon. Members on anything I have said, so that together we can go further and encourage more people to take their place in this country’s democracy.
Question put and agreed to.
The school bell has rung and we can start the next important debate early.
A-Level Provision: Knowsley Metropolitan Borough
I beg to move,
That this House has considered A-Level provision in Knowsley Metropolitan Borough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to welcome all my fellow Knowsley metropolitan borough MPs to the debate, plus others from nearby who clearly have an interest in education. I also welcome the Minister, who has a long-standing interest in the matter. Indeed, I think we first had a meeting with him on this very issue sometime in June 2016. The matter is therefore not recent; it has concerned my colleagues and I—and, I hope and believe, the Department—for well over two years.
Knowsley is now the only sizeable English metropolitan authority that does not have A-level provision within its borders. It is a matter of some disgrace that young people living in such a large borough, with such a large urban population, cannot take A-levels within the boundaries of the authority. Those who wish to do so—and many do—have to leave the borough. That is not good, and it should not persist any longer than it has to. Indeed, only two other English authorities that have some responsibility for education have no A-level provision within their borders: the Isle of Wight, which has its own issues as an island, and the City of London, which does not have that many residents.
In Carmel College, 400 pupils—just under 25%—come from Knowsley. That is exactly the same position as two years ago.
My hon. Friend has dug out some interesting numbers from Carmel College, a sixth-form college in St Helens. It is some miles away from Knowsley. It is fair to say that it is not the easiest place to get to. It is on the edge of the green belt on the edge of St Helens. If I had to get there without my car, it would not be immediately obvious to me how to do that. For young people from Knowsley or Halewood—the part of Knowsley in my constituency—having to go to that college presents significant extra difficulties, costs and barriers to their ability to take up A-levels.
Halewood Academy sixth form was closed in the summer of 2017. The closure had been mooted from the previous spring. That was when my colleagues and I first sought meetings with Ministers in the Department. The Minister here today first met with us about the issue back in May or June 2016. The sixth form closed, notwithstanding the fact that it left the entire borough without A-level provision within its borders. Any young people who did well in their GCSEs at Halewood Academy were then required to leave the borough to take up A-levels and post-16 education. It is not acceptable for young people anywhere to have to do that, particularly not when those born in Knowsley begin life with greater disadvantages than most pupils who might go on to study A-levels and post-16 education.
Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council is second on the list of most deprived local authority areas on the indices of multiple deprivation, with 45% of its neighbourhoods in the highly deprived category. Despite many efforts by Governments of all persuasions, it has a long-standing history of educational under-attainment. The Government have had initiatives—not enough in my view—that have led to extra support going to Knowsley. Previous Labour Governments of which I was a member also had many initiatives, including building new schools and new educational establishments. None of those things has thus far resulted in educational attainment being sufficiently improved. It has gone up and it has gone down, but it has consistently been below average, and that is still the case.
Knowsley is precisely the kind of place where we need to ensure that educational opportunities are available and present in every community. They need to be easily accessible. We should encourage young people who have the potential—many do—to study post-16. In particular, we should encourage them to do academic A-levels, which provide such an excellent route into better chances in life educationally, such as going on to higher education and university in the traditional way. It also offers job opportunities and economic activity that can lead to prosperity later in life. Knowsley is just the kind of place where A-levels need to be accessed by as many people as possible. It is not the kind of place where that opportunity should be difficult to access.
There have been some improvements over the past year, for which I congratulate schools, but Knowsley’s performance is currently among the worst on some educational attainment measures at GCSE. It is still below average, although things have improved over the past year on the attainment 8 measure, which is the one that is often cited. Good education is a right for all in a civilised society, no matter the circumstances of birth of an individual. We should judge ourselves as a nation and as a society on whether we can ensure that people born in Knowsley—with all the disadvantages that that often carries with it and implies—have just as much chance of meeting their potential in education and life as anyone born with greater advantages living elsewhere.
In addition to that being the right thing to do—in their rhetoric, the Government say they wish to do it—it is the key to the future economic prosperity of the English regions, such as Merseyside and the wider north-west. Our success as a region absolutely depends on us having available a highly educated workforce and developing the full potential of all our children and young people academically and economically. If we do not manage to do so, it is very likely that our area and region will fall further behind some of the other regions in our nation that manage to fully develop the potential of their young people.
Doing A-levels and going through the academic route on to university is one tried and trusted method by which those born with disadvantages in life can meet their potential academically and economically. That improves social mobility in our communities, our region and our society more generally, helping to improve the economy of the nation as a whole. It is for that reason, among others, that I am particularly concerned about what has been happening with post-16 education in Knowsley. I fear that the Government are not doing as well on that measure as I wish they would and as I hope they wish they would. They are inadvertently letting down my constituents who live in Halewood.
The Government’s approach to these matters fails because it unfortunately has no analysis of the impact of deprivation on educational attainment and no analysis of the disadvantage that results. As a consequence, Government educational policy does not seek in practice—it often does so rhetorically—to counteract disadvantage. It simply assesses numbers and standards and applies money on the basis of numbers and judges on the basis of standards. While that is one way of doing things, it does not do the job in an area such as Knowsley, which has deep-seated and long-standing issues with disadvantage and educational attainment.
As the Minister well knows, my colleagues and I have been raising this issue since March 2016, when I wrote to the then Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). In addition, I have had a number of meetings with Ministers in the past two years, usually attended by my colleagues. There has been a dizzying array of Ministers before us—it has been like a merry-go-round—although I am very pleased that the Minister with us today is still in his post. His memory reaches back to those early meetings, so he knows how seriously local representatives have taken this matter. I know how seriously he takes his responsibilities, and I am glad he is answering the debate today.
I do not think I am misrepresenting the Government if I say that they accepted from an early stage in the meetings that the current situation—having no A-level provision within the borders of an entire metropolitan borough—is unacceptable and unsustainable. At a meeting a year ago with Lord Nash, who was then one of the Minister’s colleagues, we were promised that a new and excellent provider would be brought into Knowsley to restore academic A-level provision and that capital money would be provided to facilitate that if necessary. Since that time, I think the Department has backtracked from that commitment. It has supported reintroducing A-level provision, possibly including some academic A-levels, through the merger of Knowsley Community College and St Helens College at the Stockbridge Lane site in Huyton. I understand that that will happen; such a merger was on the cards anyway.
We have also been told, following an assessment by the Education Funding Agency, that there is no need for any new provision on the basis of its usual criteria. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and I could have told the Ministers responsible that anyway. Indeed, we did tell them in meetings that the situation does not fit into the Education Funding Agency’s usual criteria for providing extra support and provision, because the issue is not that there has been a sudden boost in population or increase in the number of people wanting to study A-levels in the borough. The issue is that the available provision has simply disappeared, been closed and been taken elsewhere, for various reasons none of which has to do with the situations of the students and potential students themselves.
The situation was therefore never likely to fit the usual criteria that the Education Funding Agency applies, and I do not believe that it was particularly useful to go through that process, although of course the local authority did so, along with officials in the Education Funding Agency. Surprise, surprise, it decided that there was no real need for new provision. That was not what we had been promised in the meeting with Lord Nash. We were promised the introduction of an excellent provider, so that A-level provision, including academic A-level provision, could be brought back within the borough boundaries and expanded.
Let me be clear: I welcome the new provision being introduced as a consequence of the merger of Knowsley Community College and St Helens College. It is an entirely good thing that that will be available, but I worry about the extent to which it will solve the problem, for a number of reasons. I understand from parliamentary answers from December, and from the college itself, that there have been 113 applications so far for the new provision mooted at the merged college, and that a set of 21 subjects, including some academic A-levels, might be available in the curriculum of the new merged college. No one can really enlighten me—perhaps the Minister might be able to in his reply, or subsequently—about whether all 21 subjects will be run, or whether that depends on how many people apply; it would be unusual for the subjects to be run regardless of how many people do so.
The advice is that there has been an impressive number of applications so far, suggesting significant aspiration among school leavers in Knowsley to study A-levels, and an offer of 21 subjects, many of them A-levels. Is my hon. Friend concerned that people may be applying thinking that everything they want to do will definitely be on offer?
I think if one looks at a curriculum and is given 21 subjects to choose from, it would not be unusual to expect that, if one chooses a course, it will be run. However, it is not clear to me that they will be. When I asked the chief executive at the college about that, I was told that
“the number of subjects that will run will of course depend on demand.”
I was not told what the minimum number of pupils is that will guarantee that one of the A-levels on offer will be run. As far as I can see, there is no guarantee that any of the courses will be run from September of this year. We hope that they all will be, but I can see no guarantee of that in the answers that I have received, nor have I had any indication of what the minimum number of pupils required will be to ensure that a course is run.
When I was at school, which admittedly was a very long time ago now, I was told at my local comprehensive that I could choose any A-level subject and the school would put it on, which is indeed what happened. We are not in that game any more, unfortunately. I do not know how many or how few people have to apply for A-level English language, or A-level politics for that matter, for that course to be run. I also do not know whether that course, if and when it is run, will be run at the Knowsley site in Huyton, because St Helens College has links elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston has already referred to the so-called partnership plan with Carmel College, which is a long way outside the Knowsley borough boundaries.
The provision is welcome, and I do not wish to sound churlish, but if it results in no opportunity for local young people over the age of 16 to study academic A-levels and other A-levels within the borough boundaries, we have not moved any further. My difficulty is that it is harder for young people born and brought up in Knowsley, owing to their educational disadvantage, family circumstances and deprivation, to do A-levels than it is for people with a more advantaged family background. Such people may have had a more advantaged upbringing, more of an understanding in their family of the value of academic study, and a more supportive environment at home. It is easier for young people in those circumstances to take on and do A-levels than it is for young people examining their options in Knowsley.
It is doubly difficult if doing A-levels and academic A-levels means an additional cost of getting to college, or the additional barrier of having to get to this or that campus, five to 20 miles away. That can make the difference between a young person taking on the A-level study or not. When there is disadvantage already, having that additional barrier makes it much less likely that a young person will take up the A-level provision available. I fear that the double disadvantage that faces young people in deprived areas puts more people off studying than would be the case if they could just go to the sixth form in their local school. Those who take that option end up having to leave the borough, and even that has the additional barriers I mentioned of extra cost and time. They may also have to travel in a way that is not easy, perhaps if the family does not have a car or if the bus routes are not very good and do not go frequently to the place where A-levels can be studied.
To the credit of St Helens and the merged college, and Knowsley Community College, they have put on a bus that will take young people from my constituency to the site in Huyton. The Minister knows that we have geographical challenges in Knowsley because of the shape of the borough and the fact that there are three very distinct centres of population, none of which is particularly well served by buses running between them, which presents practical difficulties.
A bus is to be put on, but a young person from Halewood would have to get on that bus at 7.25 in the morning in order to get to the site in Huyton more than an hour later, going around the houses and through most bits of Liverpool on the way—the congested bits, I noticed, looking at the route—and would not get back to the pick-up point in Halewood until 10 to six. As the Minister knows, A-level studies are not eight hours of lessons every day. If someone has to get on a bus at 7.25 and does not get home till 10 to six, with perhaps one or two hours of study on site, that is not a tremendously practical way to convince a young person to think that it is a good option. What else might the Department and the Minister do to deal with that additional barrier—that extra disadvantage of having to wait for a bus, which is free—that young people from my bit of Knowsley and Halewood have in getting to the site in Huyton, if the A-levels are all to be taught there?
How many young people in Huyton will simply decide that there is some option other than A-levels that they will do instead? How many will decide that A-levels are not for them? What is the consequence of that over time? It makes it look like young people and communities such as Halewood are not interested in higher education or in post-16 studies that lead to job and economic opportunities in later life that might help their social mobility. That is not a good thing and will not tackle the ingrained disadvantage I have been talking about.
The relative widening of the gap between the educational opportunities available to those who are better off in areas that are better off, and those who are not, is a great worry for the future of social mobility in our society, and for economic opportunity. Analysis by the Centre for Cities has shown a widening gap in educational opportunities between northern and southern cities. Places with the weakest economies have less access to quality higher education, which compounds existing economic divides and makes them grow.
The Government recognise that trend because they introduced opportunity areas to try to counteract precisely that effect by supporting better educational provision. Inexplicably, they have not awarded that status to Knowsley. Inexplicably, Knowsley metropolitan borough was so far down the list on the criteria that I do not see how it could have been awarded that status. I would suggest to the Minister that there might be something wrong with the criteria. If a borough such as Knowsley does not come out pretty high up on that kind of measure, I do not understand the criteria.
Nothing I am saying should be taken as critical of the local authority, which literally has almost no levers left to pull in respect of secondary schooling in Knowsley. There are no directly controlled local authority maintained secondary schools, only academies or church schools. All of them are part of multi-academy trusts based outside the borough. The only thing that the authority can do is try to persuade and cajole. They have no power or levers to pull. The Minister knows that financial imperatives apply to multi-academy trusts and academies that give them little leeway to do things in the interests of local communities—that might cost money that the academy wishes to use for something else.
I am also not criticising Halewood Academy. Once it was forced into academisation by a bad Ofsted, it had no option but to close its sixth form for financial reasons, no matter what the consequences for the almost 100 pupils who were studying for A-levels at the time. Since that unfortunate event, it has taken welcome strides towards improving its GCSE results, which I welcome very much. Pupils, teachers and governors have worked very hard at that school, and I congratulate them on their work and the progress they have made.
Knowsley borough council is implementing a local deal for improving access to A-levels, along with its partner organisations; trying to improve links between primary and secondary schools; celebrating and highlighting school achievements; and trying to boost mentoring programmes and other useful and worthy initiatives. But let us be honest: they are tinkering at the edges of a major problem in educational opportunities faced by our communities. The council no longer has the power to intervene as directly as it once did.
I have a few questions for the Minister, and would ask for a response, if not today, later, if he needs a bit more time to consider them. Will he guarantee that academic A-levels will be taught within the borough boundaries from September this year, as a consequence of the merger between Knowsley Community College and St Helens College? What is the minimum number of people accepted on a course for it to be run, rather than for it to be on the curriculum but not actually taught, and for us to be told that not enough people have applied? Will the Minister guarantee that candidates will not be expected to travel to additional sites to do their courses if they accept places at the Knowsley Community College site, because some of the sites they would have to travel to are a long way away, which would present another difficulty for those pupils?
Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us about what the partnership with Carmel College consists of and its implications. If people will have to travel to that site, that does not put us in a different position to the current one in terms of A-level provision within the borough boundaries.
Will the Minister tell us what extra money the Government are putting in to assist in solving the ongoing problems with A-level provision in Knowsley? I have set out some of the additional challenges and disadvantages. Given that Knowsley did not fit the criteria for opportunity areas, perhaps the Minister will tell us what additional support his Department can give.
What plans does he have to recognise deprivation and educational disadvantage in the how he funds post-16 provision? It worries me that the problem we have in Knowsley now might be something that we see in other areas, such as the south Liverpool part of my constituency. We are already seeing newly built schools closing because they had a bad Ofsted, and other newly built schools being forced into academisation—it is not clear who the sponsors will be and what will happen to their sixth forms. I fear that, because of how the Department funds post-16 education, where standards tie in with forced academisation, for example, and the financial imperatives on academies, we may, over time, see developing deserts of post-16 opportunity in places that are already blighted by disadvantage. A number of our sixth forms and newly built schools will be forced to close because of the interaction between standards and numbers at post-16, leading to the closure of provision, which can be even more detrimental for areas already disadvantaged in accessing opportunity.
I am not convinced that the Department and the Government’s policy goes far enough to understand, recognise and do something about entrenched disadvantage and the lack of educational attainment. Instead, it looks simply at standards and numbers. An area such as Knowsley will never be advantaged if one looks simply at standards and numbers, because of the existing long-standing disadvantage. That is quite enough from me, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.
Order. The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I have to call the Front-Bench spokesman for the Opposition at 5.7 pm. Until then, George Howarth, the time is yours.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this important debate on an issue that we have been concerned about, as she rightly said, for several years.
I recall that during the meeting with Lord Nash in, I think, July 2016, to which my hon. Friend referred, I suggested that what was then Knowsley Community College—it is now the merged St Helens and Knowsley Community College—should be the provider. The then Minister and his officials were very negative about the potential for that to happen. It therefore came as something of a surprise, although a pleasant one, when it was announced last year that the new A-level provision based in north Huyton in my constituency would indeed be the merged St Helens and Knowsley Community College. As my hon. Friend said, the intention at the time appeared to be to look for a provider with a strong track record in A-level provision—not necessarily in Knowsley or even Liverpool, but further afield than Knowsley. I do not want to mislead anybody. Like my hon. Friend, I am delighted that from next September there will be A-level provision at the college, but there seems to have been a change that nobody has ever explained to us between the initial meeting in July 2016 and what eventually happened.
I will be brief, because we are short of time. I welcome the fact that there will be 21 A-level subjects on offer, linked up with other qualifications, and that, as my hon. Friend said, there will be a wide range of subjects, including English literature, English language, mathematics and more specialist subjects such as politics, product design and computer science. Offering those subjects is a good step forward, although they will be not necessarily pure A-level courses but a combination of BTEC and A-levels.
I welcome the fact that there is a three-year commitment to the proposal because, given what I am about to say about the problems confronting the college, it will take three years. I also welcome the fact that, because of issues relating to Knowsley’s geography which we have talked about all along, there will be free transport arrangements, including from Halewood and Kirkby in my constituency, which will enable students to travel to the centre of the borough. Hopefully, that inducement will enable them to overcome what my hon. Friend described as insurmountable travel problems.
I want to point out something that is not generally known, which is that it is not quite true that there is no A-level provision anywhere else in Knowsley. I visited All Saints Catholic High School in my constituency last Friday, and I met a group of students—10 young women in year 11—called the scholars group. Some of them will stay on at the school to do a combination of A-level and BTEC courses. Admittedly, only the art, graphics and textiles A-level is on offer, in addition to which there are BTEC courses in business, health and social care, science, sport and performing arts. It is a relatively small sixth form, and it offers a narrow range of options.
I was very encouraged to meet those young women, together with the headteacher, and to find out what they felt about the offer that the college is putting forward. Interestingly—this is a challenge for the new arrangements—not one of those 10 young women intends to study A-levels at the newly established A-level academy in north Huyton. They intend to go to Carmel College, which as we have already heard will be part of the arrangements, although we are not clear exactly how, and to Winstanley College in Wigan—that may seem strange, but there is a connection between some schools in Kirkby and Winstanley College, and some young people are prepared to travel that far to get a good course. A couple of them hope to go to a fee-paying school—Merchant Taylors’ in Crosby, which is in Sefton —on a scholarship.
The challenge for the new college—I hope the Minister will think about how the Government might support it in this—is that the young people in year 11 have already made decisions about where they want to go, and they are understandably choosing to go to colleges that have a good track record in A-levels. That is something we need to address if those young people decide in the end to go to the college. There are a lot of advantages to the offer, and I hope that a lot of young people will take it up—we have heard that there is a lot of interest already—but I think it will take three years, which is what the plan is, before it is established on a proper footing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this debate. She started with the principle that good education is a right for all. That should happen everywhere—not just in areas of advantage, but in areas of disadvantage. She succinctly outlined the issues facing young people in her borough, where 45% of young people grow up in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) has championed this issue for a number of years. They are MPs looking for a solution for the common good. They are not just critical of Government policy; they want to do the best for their borough. He gave some extraordinarily powerful testimony about the young people studying at All Saints and talked about what their future might look like.
My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood rightly talked about the gap between the north and the south. Evidence from Government reviews shows that, if we draw a line from the Humber estuary to the Mersey estuary, the number of children getting five good GCSEs is about 34%. In London, the previous Labour Government and the London challenge brought the number there right up so that nowadays 50% of children receiving free school meals in London achieve five good GCSEs or more. That gap needs to be challenged. It is not just me and the Labour party saying that. The former chief inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that
“the people of Liverpool, Manchester and the north are not being treated fairly—that their children have less of a chance of educational success than people south of the Wash.”
I do not want to talk about my constituency—although there is good provision in my city, it is being centralised to locations many miles away in certain colleges. My hon. Friend said that we are creating deserts of post-16 education in the poorest areas. That is probably the quote for today.
The further education sector educates more than 4 million people a year in England, with students shared between mandatory education and university, including those going back to education in later life. Under the coalition Government, spending on further education in sixth forms fell by 14% in real terms. Core funding is only protected in cash terms up to 2019-20. At the end of the spending review period in ’19-’20, the Institute for Fiscal Studies expects that the spending per student in further education will be just above the level 30 years ago, at the end of the 1980s.
Since 2010, the sector has faced sustained budget cuts amounting to 14% in real terms. That has had a number of serious consequences for the provision of further education, from a sharp rise in the number of providers facing a financial crisis to many reducing the number of courses they have to offer or, as in Knowsley, courses going altogether. Between 2010-11 and 2016-17, spending on 16-to-19 education fell by 17.5% in real terms.
On A-levels, as our Front-Bench team under my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) have raised time and time again, the funding that sixth-form colleges, schools and academies now receive to educate sixth formers covers the cost of delivering three A-level or equivalent qualifications and little more. According to the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the average annual funding received by sixth-form colleges and school or academy sixth forms is now only £4,531 per student. That is 21% less than the funding received to educate younger students in secondary schools, 48% less than the average university tuition fee and 70% less than the average sixth-form fee in the independent sector.
In March 2017, plans were announced to increase investment in 16-to-19 education for students studying technical courses in further education colleges. That will have no impact on the vast majority of students in sixth-form colleges, or school or academy sixth forms, as they are primarily studying academic qualifications such as A-levels.
To come back to the Knowsley situation, the essence of what has been raised today involves six secondary schools in the borough, four of which have been academised. The Gove reforms introduced by the former Education Secretary threw the sector up into the air and brought it down so that there is now little chance of local elements changing the dynamic in their boroughs, because we have lost the principle of subsidiarity in education that was enshrined by Ellen Wilkinson, the first Labour Minister of Education in ’45, when she implemented the Butler Act.
Local leaders can do very little now. Michael Wilshaw has said that he wants to see MPs, such as the MPs present today, leading the charge for higher standards and better education, but there is little that they, local leaders or even elected city-wide Mayors or council leaders can do nowadays, because the power has been brought back to Whitehall. As we have seen, however, Whitehall cannot run 24,000 schools from the centre.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood rightly said, Knowsley as a local borough council does not have a great deal of purchase in the situation, but it is worth placing on record the support we did get from the local authority and its officers with the Department to bring that about.
I too praise Knowsley for all it is trying to do to get the best provision. It now has no hand in four of its schools, although it has soft power, and its direct influence is on only the two Roman Catholic schools, which are yet to be academised. They are all working as hard as they can with the Archdiocese of Liverpool.
I will finish as I began with what Michael Wilshaw, the outgoing head of Ofsted, talked about. He warned that any attempts to achieve a geographic rebalancing of the British economy would be fatally undermined if children in the north of England could not be better educated. We cannot leave the education of our young people to chance, under a veil of ignorance, just because the place they are born and brought up in has differential levels of education. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood is right: education is a right for all our young people, no matter where they are born and brought up or what their social circumstances are. The Government must remember that in their response today.
If the Minister finishes his remarks no later than 5.27 pm that will give Maria Eagle up to three minutes to wind up the debate.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this debate.
I have had a long-standing interest in educational standards in Knowsley and have had a number of meetings about A-level provision in the borough over the years since 2016. It saddened and concerned me when the decision was taken that Halewood Academy should close its A-level provision. I will come to why that decision was taken by the academy, but we sought to reintroduce A-level provision to Knowsley. I share the ambition of the hon. Lady and other Members present to ensure sixth-form or college provision within the borough where students may study A-levels.
I also share hon. Members’ concerns about general educational standards in Knowsley, which incidentally predate the Gove reforms and academisation. In fact, academisation and the major reforms introduced since 2010 are a response to poor academic standards in Knowsley and other parts of the country. That is why we are so determined to raise standards across the borough. Knowsley is too often on the list of the lowest performing education authorities that I pore over when the results come out. The phonics results, for example, show that in Knowsley primary schools, 78% of six-year-olds reach the expected standards, compared with 81% nationally and significantly higher rates still in parts of the country such Newham, which also serves many disadvantaged areas but considerably exceeds the national average.
The Government’s ambition is to ensure that all pupils, wherever they live and regardless of their background, receive an education that takes them as far as their talents will allow. Standards have risen in our schools since 2010. As a result of the reforms referred to by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), 1.9 million more pupils are now in good or outstanding schools, the proportion of pupils studying two or more science GCSEs has risen from 63% to 91%, and the proportion of pupils taking the EBacc suite of GCSEs has risen from just over one fifth to nearly two fifths. At the same time, the attainment gap index has shrunk by 10% since 2011 and more pupils are now being entered for science and maths A-levels than ever before.
The Government have embarked on an ambitious reform of A-levels to ensure that our young people are prepared for the demands of this country’s world-leading universities. The Government are determined to extend those opportunities to all parts of the country, and the Department has been working closely, as I have personally, with Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council to ensure that young people in Knowsley receive the high-quality education that they deserve and that they benefit from the Government’s reforms.
In April 2016, following a wide consultation, the principal of Halewood Academy announced that it would stop admitting pupils for A-level study from September 2016. There was low demand for A-levels at the school, with only 58 pupils studying for A-levels at the time of the announcement, and the school was struggling to be financially viable, as well as delivering poor-quality education. Its position would likely have continued to deteriorate because of the declining number of 16 to 18-year-olds in Knowsley, which is set to reduce by 17% between 2015 and 2020. As a result, pupils in Knowsley deciding to pursue A-levels would need to travel to nearby boroughs, where there is a breadth of choice at colleges with established reputations for high-quality provision, such as Carmel College in St Helens, which the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood referred to, and Riverside College in Halton.
The need for A-level provision in Knowsley was kept under review by the local regional schools commissioner, and in June 2016 it was agreed that the RSC would work with the Educational Skills Funding Agency, the local authority and other local schools and colleges to improve post-16 provision. That would take into account the recommendations of the area review of post-16 provision in the Liverpool city region taking place at the time. Those reviews are designed to avoid the very gaps in provision that the hon. Lady is concerned about.
Along with the ESFA, the local authority’s executive director for children has been in discussion with Knowsley Community College, local headteachers, local businesses and outstanding local schools located outside the borough. The Department has continued to work with the borough’s director of children’s services to keep the demand for A-level provision under review. Following the area review recommendation for St Helen’s College and Knowsley Community College to merge, the Department ensured that A-level provision will be delivered at the Knowsley campus from September this year. The merged college’s published 2018-19 prospectus sets out a comprehensive A-level offer, with 21 different A-levels available. As the hon. Lady correctly stated, to date it has received 113 A-level applications for the 2018-19 academic year, and it is reviewing these in order to make an appropriate offer to each candidate, as in some cases pupils will undertake both A-Levels and vocational options, as is the case in many sixth-form colleges.
As well as ensuring future A-level provision in Knowsley, the Department has taken steps to address the historical educational under-achievement that has blighted the life chances of pupils in parts of Knowsley for too long. There have been—and still are—long-standing issues with the quality of secondary provision. That is why we are working closely with a number of organisations, including the Knowsley education commission, the Institute for Teaching, The Brilliant Club, Teach First and the local authority, to ensure an improvement in the quality of education in the borough. Knowsley Council has commissioned the development and implementation of Knowsley Better Together, which is a wider local plan to improve opportunities for pupils to study A-levels in Knowsley. This recognises the need for future A-level provision and, importantly, the need to improve schools’ performance at key stage 4 to prepare students for the demands of the new rigorous A-levels.
A range of targeted interventions have been put in place for academies in Knowsley, including the regional schools commissioner meeting the multi-academy trust responsible for these academies during the first term of this academic year, to ensure that rapid and sustained improvements are made. The Department will continue to monitor progress and work closely with the academies in Knowsley to address the quality of education at secondary level. I am very happy to make a commitment to meet regularly all the Members in the area who are concerned, together with the local authority and the regional schools commissioner, to maintain progress both in the secondary schools and in the primary schools in the borough. I have been doing this in a number of other local authority areas where I am concerned about standards. We can go school by school, including primary schools, to monitor what is happening and ensure that progress continues to be made.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood for highlighting these issues. The Department will continue to work with the borough’s director of children’s services and other appropriate parties to ensure that A-level provision in Knowsley meets the demands and needs of its pupils. Significant work is under way to raise standards in Knowsley’s schools and to prepare pupils for A-level study. I will work with the hon. Lady and keep these issues under review.
The hon. Lady raised the issue of opportunity areas. There are 12 to begin with, and we want to ensure that they represent different parts of the country—rural, coastal, north-west and so no. Given that there is an opportunity area in Oldham, it was felt that Knowsley would not be an opportunity area at this point. We will learn from what has been happening in those opportunity areas, so that we can apply the lessons learnt to other parts of the country that are low down on the Social Mobility Commission’s index in due course.
On that note, I hope that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood is happy with my response. I repeat: I am very happy and keen to work with right hon. and hon. Members to make sure that we are monitoring and doing everything we can to ensure that standards at both secondary and primary schools in the Knowsley area and the borough continue to rise, so that there is more possibility of 11-to-16 schools having sixth-form provision in future.
I thank the Minister for his response, the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), for his contribution, and my colleagues for their support and contributions. I know that the Minister understands that this issue matters a great deal to those of us who have the honour of representing communities in Knowsley. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and I will want to take him up on his offer of regularly reviewing the progress of schools and provision in Knowsley.
I am also sure that, although we wish schools well, we will want to look closely at what happens between now and September, to see how many young people apply for the new provision and what it means in practice, in terms of what A-levels are put on and how many people it takes to ensure that a particular course is run. Only by meeting the needs of pupils as they consider their future and ensuring that they can maximise their potential in life—their academic potential, as well as their economic potential later in life—can areas such as Knowsley hope to improve their economies and social mobility for the families in their communities, many of which are deprived, and in due course achieve a better future for all.
I thank everyone for coming along to the debate. We local representatives are not willing to let this matter pass. I welcome the Minister’s interest and I hope that, between us all, we can ensure that improvements in provision in Knowsley do not stop here, that there is no backsliding into an unacceptable position and that in due course all our young people can indeed take all the opportunities available to them to progress post-16 in education and in life.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered A-level provision in Knowsley Metropolitan Borough.